Keegan savours atmosphere of Newcastle revival
Newcastle United 2 Sunderland 0
Those who remain sceptical about the messianic powers attributed to Kevin Keegan on Tyneside should have been at St James' Park yesterday.
Despite Newcastle United delivering their most ordinary performance since the turnaround instigated at Birmingham five weeks ago, a serenaded Keegan still sent fans home delirious after a cosy derby-day victory over neighbours Sunderland. It wasn't water into wine stuff, but it was intoxicating and it had the club's owner, Mike Ashley, dancing in the directors' box in his "King Kev" jersey at the end.
Perhaps the only man happier than Ashley was Keegan himself. Towards the final whistle of a contest neutered by Michael Owen's sweet fourth-minute header and Sunderland's inability to threaten seriously, the volume at St James' rose and Keegan could be seen alone on the touchline drinking it all in.
"Five minutes before the end Terry Mac [Keegan's assistant] turned to me and said: 'It's like the old times, gaffer," Keegan revealed. "You don't get an atmosphere like that anywhere else in the world – not at the Nep Stadium in Hungary, not at the Maracana, Liverpool, Boca Juniors. I've told the players it used to be like that before kick-off."
This was an exaggeration but Keegan is entitled to his rhapsody. Newcastle, safe from relegation, feel stable, so his primary task on succeeding Sam Allardyce has been completed. He accepted the respect for that but, Keegan being Keegan, added: "More important, today was to give our fans something to believe in, for next season." He joked that Ashley told him there was £250m "at least" to spend in the summer.
There was more accuracy when Keegan discussed Newcastle's contribution. "We never really played well but we got the early goal and then the penalty just before half-time. I said to the players at half-time that we're about 50-60 per cent of what we could be. I said: 'You could go on and win this in style.' But we couldn't."
This was the most damning verdict on Sunderland. Admittedly, their manager, Roy Keane, lost defenders Jonny Evans and Phil Bardsley to injury. Their replacements, Danny Higginbotham and Paul McShane, were involved in both goals. McShane was static as Owen nipped in to direct a firm header from Geremi's inviting cross beyond Craig Gordon, while Higginbotham was judged to have handled the ball when challenging Owen seconds before the interval.
"It certainly didn't help but all teams lose players," Keane said. He described both Evans and Bardsley as "50-50" for Saturday's game with Middlesbrough.
Sunderland will need to bring more to that North-east party than they brought to this. Only Nyron Nosworthy could reflect with even mild satisfaction. Liam Miller, still on the transfer list, was recalled after his lateness episode and improved as the game went on. However, his weak pass led to the penalty after an interception by Owen.
Owen, in front of Fabio Capello's assistant, Franco Baldini, gave it to the impressive Habib Beye, and then Owen and Mark Viduka produced a one-two that provoked Higginbotham's lunge. Owen's spot-kick just about squeezed under Gordon. But it was game over.
Keane felt Kenwyne Jones was not isolated but the ploy of playing Andy Reid in the hole did not convince. Reid's touch was as subtle as usual but Jones was arm-waving at the lack of support. When it was put to Keane that Jones had played "manfully", Keane replied: "He did OK."
Jones' solitary chance came in the 68th minute when he met Miller's cross with a firm header. Steve Harper made his only save.
Seconds before, Gordon had saved from Obafemi Martins. The Nigerian was then withdrawn and looked none too happy.
The contrast was with Owen, who now has six goals in six games, who led the cheerleading and who, with contract talks planned, said: "I'm very happy here. If everything that Kevin Keegan wishes for comes true, then there will be a really bright future."
Goals: Owen (4) 1-0; Owen pen (45) 2-0.
Newcastle United (4-3-3) Harper; Beye, Taylor, Faye, Enrique (Edgar, 87); Geremi, Butt, Barton; Viduka (Carroll, 76), Owen, Martins (Duff, 71). Substitutes not used: Forster, Edgar, Smith, Duff, Carroll.
Sunderland (4-4-1-1) Gordon; McShane (Harte, 87), Nosworthy, Higginbotham, Collins; Edwards (Richardson, 58), Miller, Whitehead, Murphy (Chopra, 80); Reid; Jones. Substitutes not used: Fulop, Harte, Leadbitter, Chopra.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).
Booked: Sunderland Whitehead, Murphy, Miller, Reid, Nosworthy
Man of the match: Taylor.