Exiled Geordies hold key to Newcastle's fate

Phil Shaw looks at the weekend's football programme which for some clubs may prove the point of no return
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The Independent Online
Suddenly, exiled Geordies litter Newcastle's path like the ticker-tape which their followers once had on standby to celebrate the championship.

Close on the heels of Alan Shearer and Graham Fenton, the Tynesiders who combined to secure Blackburn's dramatic victory over Kevin Keegan's side on Monday, come another pair of likely lads ready to do down their home-town team.

Brian Little, who brings Aston Villa to St James' Park tomorrow, had a black-and-white striped jersey as a boy and has cousins who are season- ticket holders. Tommy Johnson, whose attacking ability persuaded Little to let Fenton go, joins the Toon Army when he is not playing.

Newcastle, who may start nine points behind Manchester United, suffered another setback in training yesterday when Keith Gillespie twisted an ankle which may prevent his facing Villa. Keegan can be excused for feeling it is time the leaders endured the odd twist of malign fate themselves. His old club Southampton, fighting for Premiership survival, may just be the team to inflict one.

Both the Saints manager and director of football, Dave Merrington and Lawrie McMenemy respectively, are Geordies, while the captain, Barry Venison, once led Newcastle. Moreover, their need for points is, if anything, more pressing than United's.

If there is to be an upset, Matthew Le Tissier will surely have to be back to his best. The Channel Islander has yet to score from open play this season. But Dave Beasant, the former Newcastle keeper who is likely to be recalled by Merrington, believes Le Tissier could be hailed as "Wor Matty" come this evening.

"Matt's started to do things in training that give us all hope," Beasant said. Southampton also have a dubious FA Cup defeat to avenge. Against a team unbeaten in 19 games, and reinforced by another Tyne and motion man, Steve Bruce, it is a tall order.

While Villa have taken a solitary point from five meetings since Newcastle's promotion, two Easter wins suggest Little is countenancing no complacency. Another sub-plot involves Shaka Hislop and Dwight Yorke, friends and colleagues with Trinidad and Tobago, although Keegan will demand that the heat is on Villa and their stand-in centre-back Ian Taylor.

Two of the five relegation candidates, Coventry and Queen's Park Rangers, tangle at Highfield Road in a battle of wits between Ron Atkinson and the man he he may now regret having dubbed "The Crab," Ray Wilkins.

Wilkins' chairman, Peter Ellis, has described the match as "a 20-pointer". Manchester City, directly above both teams, would probably prefer them to draw. Of City's match with Sheffield Wednesday, Alan Ball said: "We must make sure we don't lose." With fixtures against Villa and Liverpool to finish with, they need to win.

Like Wednesday, West Ham have nothing to play for in terms of Europe or safety, which showed in their lethargy at Liverpool on Monday. Bolton's fighting finale may have come too late, but the Hammers will have to be more alert today to stop them departing with honour.

By the time Newcastle step out, neighbouring Wearside could be Premiership territory again. Sunderland will be promoted if they win at Sheffield United, the First Division's form side, and Crystal Palace fail to beat Southend. With Howard Kendall lying in wait for his protege, Peter Reid, Sunderland may have to wait.

Meanwhile, Palace must look to their one-time tenants, Charlton, to loosen Derby's grip on the second automatic promotion place tomorrow.

Team news

Chelsea v Leeds

Manager Hoddle looks set to stick with the Chelsea side on duty at Bolton on Monday - even though a 2-1 defeat extended their run without a win to six Premiership matches. Leeds will again be without 19-goal leading scorer Yeboah, who has not yet recovered from the knee injury, sustained on international duty with Ghana, which has kept him out of the last four matches. Worthington is back in contention after injury.

Coventry v QPR

Shaw, ruled out of both Easter matches with a fractured cheekbone, is expected to return, wearing a protective mask, to boost Coventry's defensive ranks. Hall could claim Burrows' left-back place. Queen's Park Rangers will select from a full-strength squad, with midfielder Barker available again after serving a two-match ban.

Man City v Sheffield Wed

City look set to bring in midfielder Brown for suspended Summerbee, whose defensive duties will be taken over by Brightwell. Rosler might have to be content with a place on the bench again as manager Ball may continue with Quinn with Kavelashvili. The Owls' midfielder Hyde is still out with a groin problem, so Wednesday are likely to retain the side which earned a 1-0 home win over Arsenal on Monday.

Middlesbro v Wimbledon

Midfielder Pollock is in line for a Middlesbrough return after a two- match suspension while Vickers will take over from central defender Whyte, who starts a ban. Barmby could return after two matches out with a foot injury, but Mustoe (ankle) and illness victims Fjortoft and Walsh, whose goalkeeping place will again be taken by Miller, are ruled out. The Dons call up Fear, the former England Under-21 utility man who has made just four appearances this term, as cover for ankle injury victim Blackwell.

Nottm Forest v Blackburn

The Dutch international Roy, ruled out of Monday's 3-1 win at Leeds with a hamstring injury, could return for Forest, who must decide whether to recall Lyttle at right-back after Haland took his place at Elland Road. Rovers will be without pounds 3.2m midfielder Flitcroft, who starts a three- match ban. McKinlay, Marker, Gallacher and Holmes are competing for his place. Former Forest man Bohinen remains out of action with a calf injury.

Southampton v Man Utd

The Saints have doubts over midfielder Venison (back), defenders Monkou (flu) and Hall (calf) and winger Heaney (leg). They may recall goalkeeper Beasant in favour of Grobbelaar after Monday's 3-0 reversal at Aston Villa. The Republic of Ireland midfielder Keane, who has served a one-match ban, Steve Bruce and Phil Neville come back into contention for United, who are unbeaten in 18 League and Cup games.

West Ham v Bolton

Cottee and Moncur come into contention for West Ham while Todd, the Bolton manager, is almost certain to keep faith with the side whose 2-1 victory over Chelsea on Monday kept their hopes of avoiding the drop alive. Dutch striker De Freitas is available again after a knee injury, but may have to make do with a place on the bench.

Newcastle v Aston Villa

Magpies' manager Keegan - desperate for a victory to keep his side's title challenge alive - could give Northern Ireland international Gillespie a place in tomorrow's starting line-up after leaving him out for the last seven matches. Gillespie came on as a substitute to help Newcastle come from behind to beat Queens Park Rangers last Saturday, but may miss out due to an ankle injury sustained in training yesterday. England defender Howey is still absent with a hamstring injury. Aston Villa's manager Little is expected to keep faith with the side which overcame Southampton 3- 0 on Monday. That means midfielder Taylor will continue in a central defensive role alongside McGrath, who has recovered from the toe problem which forced his substitution by Scimeca against the Saints.