When Joey Barton converted a stoppage time penalty at Fulham on December 15th, Newcastle fans could have been forgiven for thinking their side may well have turned the corner.
After all, they had bounced back from a humiliating home defeat to Liverpool- one that left enduring images of angry fans yelling “You don’t know what you’re doing” at under-fire manager Sam Allardyce for pretty much the entire duration of the second half- to earn a battling point against leaders Arsenal, before following that up with a crucial 2-1 win over Birmingham at St James’ Park, and then only their second away win of the season at Craven Cottage.
Allardyce had seemingly got a message through to his players that they needed to be harder to beat- the importance of which he had stressed since arriving at the club in the summer. They sat in a comfortable mid-table position, only a decent run away from entering the race for the top six, whilst content in the knowledge that even in the event of a dramatic slide, there were “three worse teams than Newcastle” at the other end of the table. In truth there were half a dozen or more, easily.
But fast forward three months, and thirteen league games, and that success in the capital remains the Toon Army’s last league win. Their match winner spent much of the Christmas and New Year period behind bars following an alleged assault in Liverpool city centre, Allardyce has been sacked, to be replaced by fans favourite Kevin Keegan, their star striker has struggled so badly that the new England manager opted to leave him an unused substitute for his first game in charge, and their possible European chase has turned into a definite relegation struggle.
Keegan promised upon his appointment that he “knows what the fans want”, but at the moment it would appear that if he does indeed know, he isn’t letting the rest of the world in on it just yet. In the eight league fixtures he has presided over, his side have managed just four goals- and two of those came in crushing defeats at Aston Villa & at home to Manchester Utd- and just three points. And ahead of Monday night’s clash with Birmingham, Keegan’s men sat in 15th position, just three points clear of the dreaded drop zone. They couldn’t even call on the luxury of goal difference to give them even the slightest of advantages- only Derby (-50) have a worse record than Newcastle (-26) in that respect, and they have won four of their ten points against the Magpies by the way.
And for nearly an hour at St Andrews, it looked like it would get worse still for the long-suffering Geordie fans, and their beleaguered “Messiah”. Trailing at half time to James McFadden’s 33rd minute goal, Keegan had watched his side produce as inept a half of football as he could ever have witnessed (and this remember was the man who picked an England side with Gareth Southgate as a holding midfielder).
Their passing was atrocious, with Nicky Butt, Geremi & Barton the worst culprits. They were second to everything in that first half, McFadden had managed to somehow outmuscle the gigantic Abdoulaye Faye to open the scoring, and it could have been more as Mikael Forssell, Fabrice Muamba & Rahdi Jaidi all wasted chances, whilst at the other end the only time Blues keeper Maik Taylor was called into action, it was when his full back Stephen Kelly sliced a hopeful Barton cross towards his own goal. In short, Newcastle were up the creek without even a boat, never mind a paddle.
But then, Michael Owen intervened. Just as Keegan promised he would. His equaliser at St Andrews may not have been pretty, but boy did Keegan and Newcastle need it. It was typical Owen, pouncing from six yards after Taylor had spilled Obafemi Martins’ effort and, more than just simply levelling the scores, it seemed to give Newcastle the confidence and belief that in fact they weren’t this team of hopeful cloggers; they were a team filled with international players, and that they were better than this.
Owen had an urgency and an energy about his game in the second half that hasn’t been seen (apart from a brief cameo for England in the autumn) since his first few months at St James’ Park- where he notched seven goals in eleven appearances before succumbing to the dreaded metatarsal. Aided by the lively Martins, the tempo soon filtered through to the rest of the side.
Suddenly, Nicky Butt remembered that he was once a Manchester United player and that he actually could pass the ball, Geremi remembered that he had played in title winning sides for Real Madrid & Chelsea (although he failed to remember how to take a corner), and Barton remembered that he may just owe the Newcastle fans a few performances following plenty of talk, but precious little (on-field) action since his summer move from Manchester City. All of a sudden this looked like something resembling a team, and a positive one at that, as they pinned Birmingham back in search of the winner that would have done so much more than open up a six point gap to 18th placed Bolton.
Alas, that winner never arrived, and the Magpies still await their first league win of 2008, never mind under Keegan, as they prepare for the return fixture with Fulham at St James’ Park on Saturday, 98 days after the two sides’ last meeting had offered a glimpse of promise for the Toon Army. But they have positives to take into the weekend, however small and despite only picking up a point where it might have been three.
Owen & Martins are quality players and showed they have the stomach for the battle at St Andrews, if Mark Viduka can do the same then they surely will score enough goals to stay up. Barton, Butt & Geremi are proven Premier League performers, with more than enough experience to rise to the challenge facing them, and with Emre, Charles N’Zogbia, Damien Duff & James Milner all soon to be competing for places, there should certainly be enough creativity to go with their industry.
And whilst problems remain where they have always remained at Newcastle, at the back, Keegan’s team selection on Monday- three forwards in Martins, Owen & Viduka- suggests that they will set out to attack, true to their manager’s past mantra. Keegan has stated that his side needs twelve points from their last ten games, which has become eleven from nine following the Birmingham draw, and a win at Fulham would go a long way towards keeping the wolves from the St James’ Park door. For another week at least.