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FA Carling Premiership, 20/11/99
Newcastle United
Kicking ourselves
By Ian Grant

Criticise any of our Premiership rivals and the response is always the same. "You're jealous".

Leaving aside the ins and outs of what we want (and don't want) our football club to be, Saturday's match exposed the reality of our fight against relegation. Newcastle are rubbish, as are all of the teams knocking around in the bottom six or seven. Extremely expensive rubbish, like if you could go into Harrods and buy beautifully gift-wrapped boxes of rotting potato peelings, but rubbish nonetheless. There are many who expect them to climb effortlessly away from relegation peril almost as a matter of course. Not on this evidence.

Frustratingly, we were no better. The excuse that we're still adjusting, making the step up from being very fine by Division One standards to being pretty rubbish by Premiership standards, is valid but becoming tedious. It was a game that both sides will feel they should've won, yet neither played even vaguely well enough to do so. What began as bright entertainment ended as annoying stalemate.

The point does us no favours...but, looking on the bright side, it does us no harm either. This is now our longest unbeaten run of the season so far - if we can build on that, get some consistency going, then we're not going to lose touch with our rivals. Small steps in the right direction.

The now customary assault on the opposition goal in the first fifteen minutes will surely be rewarded sooner or later. The latest combination tried its luck on Saturday, Xavier Gravelaine lining up for his debut alongside Michel Ngonge and Gifton Noel-Williams. For a while, apart from some extremely jittery fannying about involving Paul Robinson and Neil Cox in the first minute, it looked more than promising.

Gravelaine's first involvement was sensational, picking up possession on the halfway line and scything through the Newcastle rearguard until foiled by a tackle. Wahey. Prompted by the immaculate Miller, our forward play was fleetingly gorgeous, a lovely move setting up Hyde for a shot that curled a couple of yards wide. Noel-Williams scuffed an effort at the near post two minutes later.

Gradually, though, such elegance faded away, as if an evil witch had cast an ugly spell on Vicarage Road. The Newcastle midfield kicked into gear and, missing Richard Johnson, our inability to dominate rather than merely compete meant that we were sucked into an increasingly scrappy and shapeless game. There was just one moment of beauty left to admire, Cox stepping confidently out of defence and swinging a magnificent pass down the right to Noel-Williams, Ngonge running onto the deft flick and denied by a fine challenge.

Beyond that point, there was little to admire. There was still some excitement...but only courtesy of defensive errors, neither rearguard ever really settling and both prone to lapses of concentration. Dumas and Ketsbaia, on for Gallagher after an early injury to the Scot, both fired wide from distance. Drab stuff.

But you can't afford to drop your guard against strikers of Shearer's quality. It doesn't matter how scrappy the game is and how ineffective their battling efforts seem, these players can win a game in an instant. For the most part, Page and Palmer had the England captain under control - he worked hard but it was always with his back to goal and an opponent in close attention. He was allowed to wander just once and it was so nearly fatal, the header from Ketsbaia's cross smacking against the foot of the post. He should've scored, in truth.

While we're here, a word, inevitably, about Shearer. Personally, I've no argument with his permanent inclusion in the England side - unless we're prepared to make Kev's brain hurt by having a full-scale tactical re-think, there's no-one better. I have a problem with giving him the captain's armband...but only because he's a striker and others are better placed to fulfil the role. There's also something in his personality that appeals to my sense of humour, since he is either the most terrifyingly dull person on the entire planet, someone who could make Michael Owen and David Beckham seem like great company, or is laughing viciously to himself on the inside, in a very post-modern kinda way. So I'll come clean and whisper it very quietly - I quite like Alan Shearer.

But, jeez, he really ought to learn how to conduct himself on a football field. He gets stick from opposition fans for one reason only - like Beckham, he tries to referee the game himself. Moan, moan, moan, whinge, moan. The so-called "model professional" shows dissent continuously and gets away with it. And the appeal for a penalty against Page was laughable, by the way - the continental idea that you've been fouled if you fall over and you fall over if you've been fouled has most definitely reached these shores. Get up and get on with it, you tart.

Two minutes after Shearer's header, the best chance of the match. Miller's first-time through-ball summed up his performance - "astute" in a word, making the right decisions with the faultless skill to put them into practice. Ngonge ran on and did all the difficult stuff, holding off a defender for long enough to prod the ball across into Gravelaine's path. From the penalty spot, the Frenchman sent his shot sailing awfully over the bar. We have to start taking chances like that, we simply don't create enough of them to waste.

The rest of the half was humdrum. Robinson got himself into a mess again, heading weakly back to Chamberlain with Shearer on the prowl and eventually rescuing himself in rather desperate fashion. Ngonge headed wide and then straight at Harper. The improving Easton picked up a knock and was replaced by Bakalli. My feet started to get cold and my mind started to drift, it was to be that kind of afternoon.

There was more of the same to follow in the second half. The onlookers in the stands tried to raise the temperature, the participants on the pitch continued battled away in dedicated but uninspiring fashion. Fittingly, then, the goal that did finally breathe some life back into the proceedings was the result of such battling. Gravelaine's superb pass into Ngonge set up the chance and the striker did well to get an effort in. It was blocked by the advancing Harper and the ball looped up towards Noel-Williams - his header under challenge was sailing wide, until Ngonge picked himself up and nodded it into an unguarded net. My initial reaction was that he was at least a mile offside. Having seen the video, I've changed my mind - it was probably more like two miles. Newcastle defenders wandered around in utter disbelief, and you could see their point.

We failed to take advantage of our good fortune. Indeed, we were particularly poor from that point on, unable to nip a Newcastle revival in the bud. Dabizas and Dumas both brought routine saves from Chamberlain as the visitors piled forward and we did little more than clear our lines in the most basic fashion. When it came, the equaliser was a deflating inevitability. Somewhere along the way, we've stopped paying attention to the basics - Dabizas' finish was precise, sweeping the ball into the corner as defenders attempted to save the situation, but it was only made possible by Robinson's reckless challenge on the edge of the box. When an opponent receives a pass with his back to goal, the course of action is simple enough - you make sure that he's not able to turn and, above all else, you don't dive in. We remain excellent in certain areas - dealing with crosses, for example - but the old resilience has given way to carelessness in others.

The mystifying substitution of Ngonge, the only one of our three forwards who didn't look completely knackered, led to a complete loss of shape for the remaining half hour. Nordin Wooter took ten minutes to touch the ball and the swift, decisive attacking that had begun the game was just a distant memory as we punted the ball forward, hoping for a lucky break. In the end, we nearly got just that as Dabizas clearly handled Miller's lob into the box - the referee was probably unsighted and the linesman, as we'd already established, was an idiot. Bearing in mind the nature of Ngonge's goal, the decisions evened themselves out; bearing in mind the two penalties against us for dubious handling offences in the last two games, it's more than frustrating. This would've been an extremely fortunate victory...but none of us would turn that down right now.

Things were still rather busier at the Vic Road end than at the Rookery in the closing minutes, as Newcastle proved themselves to be marginally better at not giving the ball away. Only marginally, mind. Gravelaine's over-elaboration on the edge of the Newcastle area led to one dangerous break that ended with a deflected shot, and there were further alarms before Ketsbaia drove over a minute later. Alec Chamberlain made one fine save, scrambling back to push away an attempted lob - if I can't tell you the Newcastle player responsible, then that's because their squad numbers were completely unreadable. We got no closer than a Wooter free kick way over the bar and another Wooter cross-shot that just eluded Gravelaine.

The result was right. A game dull enough to be goalless, yet with sufficient incompetence from officials and players for a couple of goals to stumble accidentally onto the scoresheet. Not a classic, then.

Where do we go from here? Simple - we keep trying to improve, knowing that a couple of wins would change the outlook dramatically. We remember that there's enough rubbish in the Premiership for us to put a run together and get towards the safety of mid-table.

We've got two points in the last two months and we're still within striking distance of half a dozen clubs. If we don't survive, we'll be kicking ourselves.