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FA Carling Premiership, 11/3/00
Newcastle United
A microcosm of the season
By Daniel Owens

Today Matthew, we're going to be...Oasis!

As "Stars In Their Eyes" hits our screens for its umpteenth series next weekend, the golden boys decided to stage their own dress rehearsal at St James' Park.

The similarities are uncanny, two years of enormous success, sell-out performances at Wembley Stadium, only to be met by a challenge too far, for America read the Premiership.

We battle hard, the spirit is generally good and we certainly have our moments, (Anfield, Chelsea etc). We do have ability, but, sadly, not quite enough. The story is similar for those loveable Mancunian rogues. Much was expected of their latest album after a frankly awful previous offering. (For "Be Here Now" read West Ham last week.) It was make or break time, would they survive? Well, the album's not bad, actually rather good in places but simply not quite good enough. They are no longer amongst the elite.

For the eight hundred or so fortunate to get tickets to the building site that is St James' Park, the standard of football came fairly close to warranting the slightly over the top 25 entrance fee.

It is a massive stadium dominating the skyline for miles around and is even more impressive close up. Scaffolding dictates much of the exterior but it is not hard to imagine how imperious it will look upon completion. Capacity will be over fifty thousand and they will have no problems filling it.

Bobby Robson took to the field before the game to collect his well-deserved Manager of the Month award, receiving a standing ovation from the appreciative black and white masses. How refreshing it is to see opposition fans 100% behind their manager. I would even go as far to say that Newcastle fans adore Robson almost as much as we love our own miracle worker GT (any chance of one more Graham...?).

Watford took to the field employing the same eleven that finished last week's lacklustre showing against West Ham. The opening exchanges were tight, with Page and Palmer coping well against the significant aerial presence of Ferguson and Shearer. The home side had the greater amount of possession but could do little with it, up against an uncharacteristically resilient Watford defence.

The relentless singing from the Hornet faithful seemed to raise the team and we caused some panic in the Newcastle rearguard, with Nordin Wooter the main architect in the piece. He posed problems throughout the half for youngster Aaron Hughes, who was predictably replaced at half time. Indeed, it was the Dutchman who created our best opportunity of the half, his beautiful right wing centre met by a diving Helguson. His header was good, but Given saved superbly. This inspired Watford and we poured forward in search of that elusive first goal. Smart was put clean through only to see his shot smothered by the impressive Given, Wooter could only send the rebound sailing into the stands.

Half time came and Newcastle trooped off without registering a shot on target. We had stifled much of their creativity, to such an extent that Warren Barton was possibly their most effective player. We had looked refreshingly positive and just about deserved a slender advantage.

The second half promised much and within ten minutes we had created a glorious opening. Wooter skipped past his man with ease and sent a cross to the back post where Kennedy nodded the ball back to Smart. From less than two yards out he prodded the ball towards the gaping net, only to be denied by an incredible save from the superb Given.

This seemed to spur on the Geordies and they responded in fine style. A throughball pierced Watford's offside trap and Alan Shearer, England captain, was in the clear. The linesman waved play on as both Page and Palmer stood, arms aloft. Shearer gleefully ran towards goal crashing the ball past Chamberlain and...onto the post! How we laughed, the England captain humiliated in front of his most ardent supporters. The cries of "Super Kev" rung around a disbelieving St James'. They didn't understand, they never do.

We thought we had escaped, but our relief lasted barely sixty seconds when Shearer held up play superbly before releasing Domi who sprinted to the by-line, squaring for an unmarked Gallagher to ram the ball home.

Our confidence shattered, we played the next fifteen minutes like a team aware of their fate. We were clueless. If it were not for Chamberlain we could have been stuffed. He produced two unbelievable saves to deny first Speed and then, from the resulting corner, Dabizas. We had lost the plot and it was not a pretty sight.

The singing refused to cease, impressing the Geordie faithful, who applauded our sterling rendition of "We sing, 'cos we love our team". We might not be Premiership material on the pitch, but on Saturday our support had serious Championship potential. There was still time for more Shearer-baiting when he missed a further one-on-one with Chamberlain after making a hash of going round our intrepid net minder.

So, to sum up, for two-thirds of the game I thought we were superb. We battled hard, looked fairly sound at the back and actually looked like scoring on occasions. Wooter caused problems and Johnson and Hyde did not look out of place in this company. But we did not take our chances. And we paid. One swift movement and it was game over, sixty minutes' work undone. There was no way back and for the rest of the game we were strictly second best. The support was there but there was a slight lack of quality where we needed it most. We were good, but not quite good enough. Like I say, a microcosm of the season.