St James’ Park didn’t know what to think. Michael Owen did, but he knew he better not say. The captain’s armband had already passed to Nicky Butt by the time the fourth official’s board went up. Newcastle’s skipper’s number was on it. Their former skipper’s, and current manager’s, number was the one to replace him. Nine on, ten off.
In the commentary box, Craig Burley opined that this decision–replacing Owen with Obafemi Martins, twenty minutes from the end of a game they simply HAD to win–“could backfire” on Alan Shearer, and that “no other manager would have gotten away with that substitution”. He was probably right, but fifty five seconds later Burley’s musings appeared to be fallacy as Martins shimmied inside Robert Huth to steer a right foot strike beyond the despairing Brad Jones and give Newcastle an ultimately-decisive advantage. “Better to be lucky than to be good” was Shearer’s typically cliché-dripping retort.
Luck, like Shearer, appeared to have left Tyneside permanently some-time in the 1980s and, like Shearer, has been banded as just about the only thing that could save Newcastle during this tumultuous campaign. But to attribute this hard-fought, hard-earned victory to anything as subjective as good fortune would be doing a disservice to both Shearer, and his players.
The St James’ regulars have not had much to cheer about this season, home or away. Just six league victories from thirty five games had left their side wallowing in the bottom three for much longer, much later, than anyone had expected. Especially Shearer. His arrival had threatened to sweep the Magpies to safety on a wave of “feel-good-factor”, before last night it had simply seen another legend fall victim to the curse of the Gallowgate. One point from four games had left this Tyne-Tees derby–rightly or wrongly–wearing the tag of “The Biggest Game in Newcastle’s history”
Good job then, that Middlesbrough are in as much turmoil–on the pitch at least–as their rivals. Gareth Southgate may well have endeared himself to the footballing world with his lucid, thoughtful contributions in pre and post-match interviews, and his suits may well be improving, but his side’s results were not. At start of play last night they were locked on 31 points with their crisis-riddled neighbours, and knew that only a four-goal victory could lift them above Hull City and out of the bottom three.
St James’ was a cauldron for kick-off, the black and white cards left on each seat may well smack of organised spontaneity, but they created quite a sight. The tradition began at Shearer’s own testimonial in 2006, and was revived here for a game of equal significance to the Tyneside masses.
Yet within three minutes, most of the cards had been scrunched up into tiny balls and thrown in anger at the ground, Newcastle’s boisterous start undone by Sanli Tuncay’s footwork to negotiate his way past Steven Taylor, and Habib Beye’s misfortune in dragging the ball into his own net after Steve Harper had blocked at the Turk’s feet. Fingers to lips time for Tuncay, fingers in ears time for Magpies.
Middlesbrough are not a good side, it must be said. But still the inkling here was that Newcastle simply would not have the stomach to fight back, that this early sucker punch would be one too many. Thankfully for Shearer and the fans, this notion proved misguided. They were level within six minutes, home-grown Steven Taylor meeting Danny Guthrie’s corner with a bullet header after outdoing Matthew Bates with some Shearer-esque movement. Mark Viduka had already hit a post, Owen would bring a smart save out of Brad Jones with a glancing header, and the performance as a whole was at least approaching cohesive.
There were still defensive lapses; there will always be in a game involving Newcastle. Especially one of this importance. Sebastian Bassong chose this game to have one of his poorer outings for the club, but alongside him Taylor, Habib Beye and Damien Duff limited Boro to just a couple of chances- both of which fell to Marvin Emnes, neither of which he could take.
Shearer spoke post-match about some “Big, big performances from some big men”, and it was not hard to suss out where the compliments were aimed. Jokes about his waist aside, there are few bigger players at Newcastle (when on-form) than Viduka, and the Australian was in imperious form throughout. It was his composure and hold up play that gave Newcastle a pivot from which to attack, and his physical presence allowed Newcastle to commit more men from midfield than at any point during Shearer’s tenure thus far. The difference was marked.
Where Nicky Butt dealt almost exclusively in the rushed and the hopeful, Guthrie possesses a liking for the simple pass, moving intelligently into space to take the ball back, rather than the round-the-corner antics of Butt (and Geremi & Alan Smith before him). His composure and thoughtfulness seemed to rub off on his former Bolton colleague Kevin Nolan, who had his best game for the club by a country mile, culminating in a tidy assist for Peter Løvenkrands’ clincher.
Even defensively there were some promising signs. Boro’s attack may be powder-puff- not many clubs would view an injury to Afonso Alves as a blow, and Jèrèmiè Aliadièrè possesses “more syllables than goals” according to Setanta commentator Jon Champion (harsh perhaps but do the maths….)–but Newcastle gave up far fewer chances than usual. Harper did make one smart save to deny Gary O’Neil–Boro’s best player on the night- whilst Aliadièrè sent a presentable headed chance wide seconds after Martins’ momentous contribution, but on the whole it seemed unlikely that a winner would come from a red shirt.
And so to Martins. Shearer himself admitted he knew better than to expect instant rewards for a bold substitution, and those proclaiming him as a tactical genius should view the switch with a more logical eye. Yes Newcastle needed a goal; yes Owen has–in the past–scored goals. But so has Martins, and more often than Owen during his stint on Tyneside. Viduka’s performance meant he was essential in the last twenty minutes, whilst to withdraw a midfielder would have meant a tactical reshuffle that may well have allowed Boro’s better players–Tuncay and Stewart Downing–to exploit an increase in space down the flanks. Owen was the natural choice for replacement.
Of course the fact that Martins, and Shearer’s other substitute Løvenkrands, made such a telling impact reflects well on the manager. Both finishes were confident, clinical even. Neither of those words could be tossed at the men they replaced–Owen and Jonas Gutierrez, whose gameness endears him to the public, but whose tangible returns have been minimal over the course of this admittedly-tough debut season.
Shearer was keen to stress that “nothing has been achieved yet, it is one win”, as the black & white clad army made its way down to the Quayside for that rarest of treats, a celebratory pint, but his side have leapfrogged a Hull side that seems to have forgotten how to win, and have another home game to look forward to on Saturday against Fulham. A win there is likely to ensure their Premier League status, and Shearer’s as a legend. Not that he ever needed reassuring of course.
For Boro, the prospect of Championship football looms large. Alves will miss the rest of the season with his ankle injury, and with David Wheater, Emmanuel Pogatetz and Chris Riggott all missing, there is a paucity of options in central defence that even utility-man Bates seems unable to fill. Gareth Southgate hinted at his own desperation in handing a first Premier League start to the Dutchman Emnes, but unlike Shearer, his calculated risk failed to work. They have two games remaining–at home to Aston Villa & away to West Ham–both of which have to be won if they are to stand any chance of staying up. On this showing, they are doomed.
They have some players of quality. Tuncay, Downing and O’Neil will all be Premier League players next season I suspect, whilst Huth is a defender of presence and power, but around them there is a distinct lack of class and conviction in their side. Mohamed Shawky was given a start in midfield and was made to look pedestrian by Butt & Nolan (no mean feat that), whilst Aliadièrè & Justin Hoyte must long for the days of Carling Cup run-outs at Highbury with which they could convince observers they were players of potential. Even Jones in goal, although blameless here, does not strike you as someone who could make match-winning contributions on anything other than a semi-regular basis. The manager, whether that is Southgate or not, has some work to do this summer if Boro are to bounce back at the first time of asking.
Onwards and upwards then for Newcastle. One grinning Magpie quipped that they were looking for the “top six” next season on his way out of St James’. He was only half-joking.