Blackburn Rovers 2 Newcastle United 1
It was as good an argument as any for Sir John Hall's planned youth development centre on Tyneside. Two goals from Wallsend's Graham Fenton, both set up by his fellow Geordie Alan Shearer, last night inflicted a potentially devastating blow to Newcastle United's championship ambitions.
Having dropped six points off the pace when Manchester United defeated Coventry yesterday afternoon, Newcastle looked to have cut the gap back to three when David Batty scored a rare goal against his old club with 13 minutes to go.
But Fenton levelled with four minutes left, and struck again in the final minute. Coming just five days after Stan Collymore's injury-time winner at Anfield it was the cruellest blow imaginable.
A visibly shaken Newcastle manager, Kevin Keegan, attempted to put a brave face on the defeat insisting, "it is definitely not over. If Southampton turn Manchester United over on Saturday, and we beat Villa [on Sunday] it is back as it was tonight. The players are a bit low, but the final chapter has not been written."
But the mask slipped when he added: "I would like us to finish runners- up if we can't win it. This club has not finished runners-up for a long time. Manchester United are red-hot favourites and you have to give credit to them. It is not so much that we have fallen apart, they have had a tremendous run as well. Both those things had to happen."
Few could have predicted the dramatic finale after half an hour. With Blackburn's hustling denying Newcastle space, and Keegan's team selection apparently sacrificing their width, the game failed to flow. Keith Gillespie, the catalyst for Newcastle's weekend victory over Queen's Park Rangers, was back on the bench with Keegan's only concession being the restoration of Peter Beardsley to the centre.
Robert Lee moved to the right wing but, despite playing there for Charlton, seemed no happier and it took a route one free-kick for Tim Flowers to be tested. Taken by John Beresford after 32 minutes it was flicked on by Les Ferdinand and only Flowers' anticipation and bravery prevented Beardsley scoring.
Ripley struck the bar (with a cross) to remind Newcastle that Rovers are still the champions but it was Newcastle in the ascendancy with Faustino Asprilla, Ferdinand, Lee, Beardsley and Philippe Albert all going close.
Rovers' response was to rattle the bar again, this time deliberately, through Tim Sherwood after 65 minutes. Then came two substitutions, one of which was to decide the match.
At the time it looked as if Keegan's replacement of Asprilla with Gillespie would be the crucial one, not Ray Harford's introduction of Fenton. That belief hardened when, within minutes of appearing, Gillespie helped put Newcastle ahead. Receiving a David Ginola pass on the wing he drew two defenders before laying the ball back to Steve Watson. He slipped the ball to Batty who drifted past a defender before shooting low inside Flowers' far post with his left foot.
Batty had scored once in 71 games for Rovers before his recent pounds 4m transfer. It was the perfect riposte to the Rovers' fans who had been booing him.
Blackburn, however, had an even better reply. With four minutes left Shearer turned to shoot inside the box. The ball struck Darren Peacock and looped to the unmarked, and just onside, Fenton. His shot went in off Shaka Hislop's knee.
Newcastle charged up field but, with injury time approaching, a long punt from the Rovers area dropped over Peacock. It came to Shearer and, as Peacock and Beresford closed him down, he released Fenton. Again he looked just onside, again Hislop got a touch to his shot, this time with his hands, but again he could not prevent it going in.
Fenton - like Shearer - is a Newcastle fan. So are his family. "My mam, my sister and her boyfriend are down," he said. In all innocence he added: "I hope they had a good day."
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, Coleman, Hendry, Kenna; Ripley (Gallacher, 77), Sherwood, Flitcroft, Wilcox; Shearer, Newell (Fenton, 71). Substitute not used: Croft.
Newcastle United (4-4-4): Hislop; Watson, Peacock, Albert, Beresford; Beardsley, Batty, Lee, Ginola; Asprilla (Gillespie, 73), Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Elliott, Kitson.
Referee: G Willard (Worthing).
Premiership top three
P W D L F A Pts GD
Man Utd 34 22 7 5 63 32 73 +31
Newcastle 33 21 4 8 61 35 67 +26
Liverpool 34 19 8 7 66 31 65 +35
NEWCASTLE: 14 Apr: Aston Villa (h). 17 Apr: Southampton (h). 29 Apr: Leeds Utd (a). 2 May Nottm Forest (a). 5 May: Tottenham (h).
MANCHESTER UNITED: 13 Apr: Southampton (a). 17 Apr: Leeds Utd (h). 28 Apr: Nottingham Forest (h). 5 May: Middlesbrough (a).
LIVERPOOL: 16 Apr: Everton (a). 27 Apr: Middlesbrough (h). 1 May: Arsenal (a). 5 May: Manchester City (a).