Newcastle United 2, Aston Villa 0
JOE Kinnear recently reminisced about his time working among the peaks of the Himalayas during a spell coaching in Nepal and Newcastle’s interim manager has shown he is still capable of climbing the odd mountain at St James’s Park.
Newcastle United have not clawed their way out of relegation trouble just yet, but two successive wins since the Wear-Tyne derby defeat have not only lifted them out of the bottom three, it has also put them back above Sunderland in the table. Perhaps the battle for regional supremacy is not as clear-cut as we thought.
As for Kinnear, his appointment was ridiculed nationally and was greeted with bewilderment in the North East, but there is no denying the fine job he has done in arduous circumstances.
In his five games in charge, Newcastle have won two, drawn two and lost once – and this latest victory brought the best performance of the lot.
When Kinnear arrived Newcastle were in disarray and, while his reign on Tyneside could end at any time should Mike Ashley find a buyer, he deserves nothing but credit for the improvements he has overseen. Carry on like this and even the new owners will be forced to consider him for the job on a permanent basis.
Villa are the Premier League’s up-and-coming team with a young, exciting squad with pace in abundance. They are, in many respects, precisely the sort of club Newcastle should be.
In O’Neill they have one of the game’s most respected and successful managers and, in Randy Lerner, among the best in foreign owners, an American who realises he is best to take a back seat when it comes to football decisions.
If the top four is a closed shop, Villa are the team who, with Arsenal suffering some early campaign stumbles, might just have the key to unlock the back door this season. Yet, they were well-beaten by a club which is up for sale and lacking any sort of long term planning.
Villa came closest to breaking the deadlock in the first half when Martin Laursen rose above Shola Ameobi and glanced Gareth Barry’s header against the outside of the far post.
The visitors had an even better chance moments later, but Gabriel Agbonlahor was left to hang his head in shame in front of the Gallowgate after completely missing James Milner’s low cross at it rolled across the six-yard line. It was a candidate for miss of the season and a major let-off for United, but they deserved it on the balance of play.
While Villa broke with speed and menace, Newcastle did plenty of pressing themselves with Obafemi Martins at his infuriating, thrilling and unpredictable best.
The Nigerian is world class with one touch and diabolical with the next, nicking the ball around Carlos Cuellar, but, with a clear run in on goal in front of him, rashly decided to shoot from the edge of the area.
The former Inter Milan man was at it again later in the half, jinking and twisting his way into the Villa area but, with his head down, the 24-year-old decided to shoot from a tight angle rather than look up to see two unmarked team-mates lurking at the far post.
But it was exciting stuff and when Villa produced the move of the match, Newcastle quickly responded with a flowing one of their own.
Villa’s was breathtaking, Barry curling a ball into the feet of Agbonlahor, who fed it on to Ashley Young and the England winger dipped his shoulder to wrong-foot Taylor only to shoot straight at Shay Given.
Newcastle, though, almost snatched the lead seconds later, Taylor playing a perfectly weighted pass out wide to Habib Beye and when the full-back’s dangerous cross flew towards the near post, the Newcastle centre-back was millimetres away from stabbing the ball home.
Newcastle have consistently shown a reaction to Kinnear’s half-time team-talks since he took control and, having matched Villa in the first half, they began to out-play them in the second.
With Villa’s counter attacks increasingly blunt, Newcastle’s strikers saw more and more of the ball and Martins eventually made the possession count on the hour mark.
Joey Barton spotted his run with a ball into his feet and Martins did the rest, shrugging off the attention of Laursen to make space to turn and, with Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel a yard out of position, the striker thumped a low shot into the bottom corner from just outside the area.
Nobody could say Newcastle did not deserve it and they were desperately unlucky not to extend their advantage seven minutes later. Damien Duff’s quick feet drew in Villa defenders and lured them into committing a foul. When Nicky Butt stroked the ball over the wall he could only scream in frustration as it crashed against the outisde of the post with Friedel well beaten.
The Magpies faithful feared a Villa fightback, but they need not have fretted, Jonás Gutiérrez underlining his growing importance to the side with an incisive run down the left flank before he pulled the ball back for Martins to tap in from close range.
To complete a thoroughly satisfying evening it is also worth noting that, for all of his hard work and endeavour, Milner faded the longer the game went on and was virtually anonymous in the second half. The England Under-21 international always had a tendency to flatter to deceive at St James’s Park and he did so again last night.
If Newcastle had actually reinvested the £12m they received for him in the summer, it would have been an excellent bit of business.