Monday, May 11, 2009

Painful hope*

Newcastle Utd 3 - 1 Middlesbrough

At last - a must-win game that we've won.

The importance of our encounter with fellow strugglers the Smoggies was such that not even Setanta's Jon Champion could overstate it. Put simply, a draw would have helped neither of us and a defeat would have transformed the possibility of relegation into a distinct probability.

Wor Al once again rang the changes, though after the meek surrender at Anfield that was hardly surprising. Out went the injured Alan Smith, the hapless Fabricio Coloccini, the unfortunate Obafemi Martins and the suspended and banished ASBO and in came Danny Guthrie, Kevin Nolan, Steven Taylor and Little Saint Mick. The latter seemed the most significant selection, but it panned out rather differently...

I'd spent all day telling anyone who'd listen, and some who wouldn't, that I'd be delighted with 94 minutes of goalless dross if Big Lad then popped up to slice one in off the post - but not only was he not in the squad, it was the Smogs who opened the scoring with the scruffiest, scabbiest, mangiest goal imaginable after a couple of minutes. Habib Beye it was suffered the double misfortune and indignity of seeing Tuncay's neat touch run through his legs and then accidentally shinning the ball into his own net after Steve Harper had blocked the Turkish striker's shot.

The flags in the stands were stilled, but only temporarily. We'd already served notice of our intent with a flowing move which ended with Guthrie slicing wide before Beye's own goal, and we went closer still shortly afterwards when former Smoggie Captain Pasty controlled the ball on his ample chest and cracked a volley off the near post, Boro 'keeper Brad Jones apparently too busy contemplating why his acting career hasn't taken off since his stint as The Sherminator in American Pie.

Taylor blasted the rebound over the bar from point blank range but soon made amends by heading the equaliser from Guthrie's superbly flighted corner (a novelty, though - pleasingly - not tonight). It looked as though we may have taken something from last weekend's thrashing at Anfield after all - Kevin Nolan's attempted block on Taylor's marker bore all the hallmarks of Daniel Agger's on Beye in similar circumstances.

Nifty footwork on the left and a decent cross from Captain Pasty then presented his strike partner Little Saint Mick with what turned out to be his only chance of the night, but Jones flicked out a hand to divert the header over the bar. At the other end, in contrast with the off-colour Owen and lumbering if effective Viduka, Marvin Emnes was causing havoc with his energetic running and we were mightily relieved to see only the outside of the net ruffled by his follow-up to an initial shot parried by Harper.

The first 15 minutes of the second half were much like the last 15 of the previous home game, in which the opposition completely controlled possession and came close to capitalising - only Harper's palms came between Gary O'Neil's shot and the back of our net. With Spiderman tiring and starting to look like a liability out on the left in front of makeshift left back Damien Duff, Shearer brought on Peter Lovenkrands, and then - in a move that raised a few eyebrows around the ground - brought Obafemi Martins on for Little Saint Mick rather than Nolan.

We should have known better than to question Shearer's judgement, though, because within two minutes we were ahead for the first time in the game. Captain Pasty flicked a clever back-header to an offside Nolan, but fortune for once favoured us, the linesman's flag stayed by his side, and Martins fooled his marker before slotting home despite slipping at the crucial moment. Given the pair's much-publicised disagreements, the sight of the Nigerian sprinting to the touchline to leap on his manager in celebration was encouraging. Whether this means Little Saint Mick has made his last start for the club is anyone's guess - though I suspect it might be Spiderman who makes way for Martins when Fulham visit on Saturday.

The Smogs continued to attack - sub Jeremie Aliadiere headed wide at the near post and Emnes looked all set to prod home until Harper intercepted the cross in the nick of time - but strangely (particularly given events towards the end of the home games against Man City, Stoke and Wigan) I didn't feel as though we'd surrender the lead. Perhaps I was just caught up in the euphoria of us having scored not once but twice for the first time in ages, though. Thankfully twice duly became thrice four minutes from time, Nolan crossing for Lovenkrands to smash home a volley unmarked and ensure the points would be remaining on Tyneside, condemning our relegation rivals to their 11th straight Premier League defeat on the road.

Man of the match Captain Pasty, whose hold-up play and aerial power had been crucial all evening, was taken off (revealing what can only be described as the upper torso equivalent of control pants under his shirt), and, though his replacement Andy Carroll only had a few minutes to make an impression, Bigger Lad (as he'll henceforth be known) came close to making the scoreline more emphatic on a couple of occasions as a desperate Boro stretched themselves too thin.

The importance of the game and the fact that winning wasn't a feeling we'd experienced since 7th February meant that the final whistle was celebrated with demented gusto by all in black and white. Of course there's still much to be done, but hauling ourselves out of the relegation zone at Hull's expense and improving our goal difference has to seen as a good night's work. It's back in our hands now, after all.

* The title of the report comes courtesy of my friend Nick, one of several people to text me after the match. His read: "Another two weeks of painful hope then. Good show!" Couldn't have put it better myself.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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