Tuesday, January 02, 2007

If the kids are United

Newcastle Utd 2 - 2 Man Utd

Manchester United were back in town yesterday, ten years since their most celebrated visit of the Premiership years. On a sublime October afternoon in 1996, Phillippe Albert's perfectly lofted twenty-yard chip floated over stranded goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel and dropped, in cinematic slow-motion, into the Gallowgate net, bringing the curtain down on an astonishing 5-0 victory. Albert was back yesterday too, to make the interval lottery draw - and also, it seems, to demonstrate to the Geordie faithful that the passing years have done nothing to dim his acute sense of theatrical timing. In a departure from the bashful shuffle and half-wave to the thinly-populated stands favoured by most besuited Half-Time Heroes, our Phillippe deigned to carry out his ticket-and-hat related duties only after completing a stately lap of the St James' turf - in which he made sure to milk the generous applause which tumbled down, in turn, from all four sides of the ground.

The moustachioed Belgian's unscheduled valedictory circuit came close to delaying the start of a second half which was already keenly anticipated by the 52,000 present. The opening forty-five minutes, in which Milner's raking, diagonal thirty-yarder into the top corner had been cancelled out only on the stroke of the interval by Scholes's cool edge-of-the-box finish, had proved more evenly-contested than the home support could have dared to envisage at kick-off. Then, the announcement of the line-ups had revealed that, as feared, Glenn Roeder had been forced to call quite unprecedentedly upon untried youth in order to find eleven fit men to take on the league leaders, who had arrived at Gallowgate in full strength.

I say men, but of course we are talking about boys. Twenty-year old Stephen Taylor was being called upon to marshall a home defence comprising himself, the out-of-position Solano at right-back, and a pair of nineteen-year olds Academy products with only a handful of first-team appearances between them. The talk as the home side set play in motion was not of whether points could be gained, but rather of how a defeat of truly embarrassing proportions could be avoided. A repeat of the 1996 scoreline - except this time in favour of the visitors - had not been discounted in some more pessimistic quarters.

Within a minute of the restart, such doom-laden predictions were being given another airing as that man Scholes (what have we done to upset him over the years, by the way?) arrived with by-now predictabe timeliness on the edge of the home penalty area to round off a passage of smoothly-oiled approach play with a first-time airbound drive whose swerving flight left the otherwise flawless Given flailing at mid-air. This cruel strike led to a twenty-minute spell where the visiting team, like a Champion heavyweight boxer toying with a punch-drunk challenger, had the home side exactly where they wanted them. During this spell several presentable opportunities to deliver the knockout blow of a third goal were spurned, with Ronaldo a notable culprit.

If it was conceivable that the red-clad marauders would live to regret their profligacy, the source of the equalising strike that sent the black-and-white followers into near-delirium would not have been predicted by many of them. There seemed little danger when the gangly youth Edgar, making a rare excursion into visiting territory in support of a tidy passing movement, picked up a square ball flush to the touchline, and some forty yards from Edwin Van der Sar's goal. There appeared only marginally more peril as the youngster advanced inwards, then let go a mid-paced daisycutter which proceeded to bobble speculatively in the general direction of a packed goalmouth. A split-second later, however, the ball was nestling in the net - and the teenager was wheeling away in barely-concealed astonishment, pursued by ecstatic colleagues.

Replays showed that Edgar's effort had beaten Van de Sar only with the aid of a crucial deflection off Paul Scholes, the scorer of both visiting goals on the day, and so often in recent years the scourge of the black-and-whites. The delicious irony of this long-awaited reversal in fortune was not lost on the home support, who, after seeing their patched-up defence repel a desperate but fitful last-gasp onslaught from the increasingly frustrated visitors, saluted the 2-2 draw like a famous victory.

That 5-0 win of a decade ago, it will be remembered, seemed at the time to have swung the Premiership race decisively in favour of Kevin Keegan's rampant mid-nineties Newcastle team - and in the process, to have effected a sea-change in the long-term power-struggle at the top of the domestic game. We know now that it did nothing of the sort - and that the coming ten years were to be characterised only by gradual decline, culminating in a quite horrid spell at the end of the unmissed Sounness tenure when the club - squad, management and supporters - appeared to be the laughing stock of the national game's chattering classes.

It is too early to tell whether David Edgar's bouncing bomb will prove to be a truer turning point in our history than Phillippe Albert's cheeky chip, but our valiant display must go some way to showing the wider footballing public that Newcastle United once again have what it takes to become a respected Premiership force in the game. Certainly there is ample reason to trust that under Roeder's skilled, unfussy tutelage the kids will continue to thrive - and perhaps one day form the backbone of a future, primarily home-grown team fit to challenge for honours. Suddenly, if the kids are United, anything seems quite dizzyingly possible. Long may it continue.

Other reports: BBC

(Incidentally, even the normally sour Michael Walker found some positive words for our youngsters - they really must have been impressive...)


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