Ferdinand finds key to Boro's fortress

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Newcastle United 1 Middlesbrough 0

The sound of the "Blaydon Races" rang joyously around St James' Park last night as Newcastle United maintained their winning start to the Premiership season. Their fourth successive victory took them two points clear at the top of the table. And it was all the sweeter for the identity of the vanquished - Middlesbrough, their nearest Premier Division rivals.

But there was also another sound, of angry complaint, and it could earn Bryan Robson an early censure in his Premiership management career.

Newcastle's fluid football so dominated the match that they should have won by several goals. A combination of ineffectual finishing and inspired goalkeeping meant they had to settle for one, scored by Les Ferdinand after 67 minutes. It was enough, but only just. In the closing moments Middlesbrough twice went closing to snatching a draw. First Neil Cox flashed a header past the far post from Jamie Pollock's cross, then Pollock himself went down in the area under a challenge from Darren Peacock.

So incensed was Robson, the Middlesbrough manager, that he resorted to classic manager-speak. "We was robbed," he said. "I think it was a blatant penalty. The referee favoured Newcastle for any 50-50 decision." Robson did admit that his team "did not do enough to earn a draw." It is an assessment with which few of the capacity crowd would disagree.

This was the first North-east derby since the Premiership's creation and local anticipation was as thick as fog on the Tyne. So, too, was Middlesbrough's defence as they sought to end Newcastle's run of early season victories.

However, Newcastle's passing and movement soon produced shafts of light in this red-shirted wall. Most of these were created by David Ginola and Peter Beardsley. Beardsley's energy and vision is well known but even he was overshadowed by the Frenchmen whose every touch, even deep in defence, carried the promise of entrancement.

It was Ginola who first threatened a goal, shooting just over from 20 yards after a bewitching dribble by Keith Gillespie. Middlesbrough, who refused to be cowed, responded with a wayward shot from Jamie Pollock but Newcastle quickly resumed the assault.

For a long time they failed to create clear chances, allowing a nervous- looking Alan Miller to settle in the Middlesbrough goal. He needed to as Newcastle stepped up the tempo in the second period. Robert Lee had already gone close with a half-volley from Ferdinand's nod-down when a sweeping move ended with Miller pushing Gillespie's drive around the post.

The subsequent corner fell to Steve Howey and, this time, Miller had to fingertip over the bar. That corner was wasted but Darren Peacock headed back Miller's goal-kick to put Ferdinand through and the goalkeeper had to dive bravely at his feet.

Ferdinand - who was omitted from the England squad on Tuesday - persisted, twice going close with headers before he was finally rewarded 23 minutes from the end. Ginola worked himself a yard of space with typical trickery before crossing from the left for Ferdinand to head powerfully past Miller.

"It needed something special to open them up and I thought the goal was impossible to defend," said Kevin Keegan, the Newcastle manager.

It was Ferdinand's fourth goal of the season and, should Stan Collymore's ankle injury keep him out of the England squad he will surely be called up.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Hislop; Barton, Peacock, Howey, Beresford; Gillespie, Lee, Clark, Ginola; Beardsley, Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Fox, Hottiger, Srnicek (gk).

Middlesbrough: (3-4-3): Miller; Vickers, Pearson, Whyte; Cox, Pollock, Mustoe, Morris; Barmby, Fjortoft, Hignett (Moreno, 72). Substitutes not used: Whelan, Kavanagh (gk).

Referee: R Hart (Darlington).

Last night's results, Redknapp on alert, page 23