St James’ Park reached to the bottom of its lungs for one last time, producing a blood-curdling final battle cry to its beleaguered heroes. On the sideline Alan Shearer looked on more in blind hope than confidence, whilst Iain Dowie simply looked ridiculous with his “Phil Brown” headset. Danny Guthrie trotted over to the left touchline and spotted the ball up, in the middle a scrum of players jostled for position. It was now or never.
The ball in is a good one, flighted with decent pace into a decent area. Unfortunately for Newcastle Sylvain Distin, an ex-Magpie gets his head to it. But wait, the ball loops more up than out, and there is a black & white shirt beneath it. The last chance of last chances. Fabricio Coloccini has never scored for Newcastle, what a time it would be to erase that sentence from future write-ups. He steadies himself; St James’ holds its breath. But the volley is ambitious and uncontrolled, and ends up twenty rows into the Leazes End. Chance gone.
Shearer turns away, he knows how important this game was, he had spent the preceding days informing all and sundry that this was the “biggest game in the players’ careers”. On this showing Al, there will be four more of those before the end of the season, starting at Anfield on Sunday.
Superficially, the damage is not irreparable. Shearer’s side sit three points behind free-falling Hull City, boasting also a superior goal difference. They also have the perfect chance to extinguish the threat of fellow rivals Middlesbrough when the two sides meet on Tyneside a week next Monday. Could be worse I suppose. But with away trips to Liverpool & Aston Villa on the horizon, and their home form rendering wins against Boro & Fulham far from likely, it is not fanciful to suggest that Shearer’s men would be hard pushed to pick up another three points this season.
It is hard to quantify the pressure the eleven players picked by Shearer yesterday must have been under. Imagine a lilo hosting a three way battle for supremacy between Vanessa Feltz, Rik Waller & Michelle McManus and you are about a third of the way there. Newcastle’s public gets its fair share of praise from the romanticists in the media, but it can also be vice-like in the expectation it emits. Not for nothing is Newcastle considered something of a graveyard, where good, solid professionals wither under the gaze of the Gallowgate.
Shearer has already shown himself to be fearless in tinkering with his side- not surprising considering the results and performances dished up under his tutelage thus far- and he was at it again last night, bringing back the club’s only specialist left back José Enrique, as well as the villain of his first home game Coloccini, and the previously injured trio of Alan Smith, Mark Viduka & Obafemi Martins. Out went January signings Ryan Taylor & Kevin Nolan, as well as local favourites Andy Carroll & Jonas Gutierrez, who had toiled to no avail at Spurs a week previously.
And certainly on this showing it is hard to argue that Shearer has managed to squeeze a touch of extra commitment from his players, tackles were made with purpose, aerial duels were contested, loose balls were seized upon and the crowd were appreciative. But when it came to what really mattered, a winning goal, Newcastle lacked punch and conviction. Their best chances fell to their best players would you believe, in the first half Obafemi Martins slashing wildly over the top from eight yards, in the second both Mark Viduka & Michael Owen shooting tamely at David James with presentable openings. Shearer’s reaction to these spurned opportunities was animated to say the least.
Still it could have been worse, Pompey showed a distinct lack of ambition at times, understandable perhaps given that the scoreless draw puts them seven points clear of the bottom three and in all likelihood ensures Premier League survival for another season, yet still there was an underlying feeling that if Paul Hart’s men had really gone for it, they could have turned one point into three.
Newcastle’s defence stuck to their tasks better than in recent weeks, especially considering the early withdrawal of José Enrique with a hamstring problem that could well spell the end of his season, and the fact that Shearer opted for a three pronged attack which meant that width was at a premium. Still Pompey threatened, Peter Crouch followed Owen & Viduka with a shoddy finish to a good chance, whilst Richard Hughes’ header thwacked against a Gallowgate End post in almost slow motion after he outmanoeuvred Coloccini to meet Jermaine Pennant’s corner.
In the end Hart declared himself happy with the point, whilst for Shearer there was a touch of soul searching as he declared his players were lacking in confidence, claiming his side created enough chances to have won the game. From day one he has stressed the importance of winning their three “winnable” home games, now it would appear that defeat to Liverpool on Sunday could leave his side on the brink.
Alternatively of course a battling performance and result at Anfield could re-ignite the old flame inside St James’ and with Hull not playing Aston Villa until Monday night- and looking as unlikely to pick up wins as Newcastle currently- Shearer could be out of the bottom three this time next week. Unlikely perhaps, but in recent seasons we have watched Portsmouth, West Ham & Fulham climb out of similar chasms. If Newcastle are to add their name to that list of unlikely escape acts, then it isn’t a statue Shearer deserves, it’s a contract.