IT ONLY takes a minute to change the face of any match, and Nikos Dabizas proved it to prevent Middlesbrough from reclaiming their place among the group most seriously involved in the pursuit of the Premiership leaders, Aston Villa, yesterday.
Perhaps more in desperation than through any real sense of inspiration, Ruud Gullit, the Newcastle manager, invited the Greek defender to help save this North-east derby, allotting just seven minutes for the task.
In the event, Dabizas required just a fraction of the time. Sixty seconds after replacing Warren Barton, he met a delightful cross from Laurent Charvet with a spring-heeled jump to head Newcastle level.
Yet, surely, Bryan Robson, the Middlesbrough manager, should have known better than expect anything else from such a home-grown contest. In all previous Premiership meetings with Newcastle, numbering four, they have come off second best. So, perversely, this may have to be considered a minor triumph.
In any event, it was the price they had to pay for failing to make the most of their second-half scoring opportunities, which at least helped distinguish Steve Harper as a goalkeeper of genuine promise.
The fightback certainly heartened Gullit who maintained: "This is another step forward for us. Two weeks ago I don't think we would even have scored one goal."
Though Charvet played a more obvious part in saving Newcastle's day, scoring one and making the other, Harper, who was only playing because of an injury to the Republic of Ireland's Shay Given, produced a string of impressive saves. They bought this largely uninspiring Newcastle team some time and thanks to Dabizas they were able to use it.
For a time, it seemed that the two female streakers were the ones destined to take the eye when they arrived unannounced just after half-time. And while there are those who continue to maintain that Paul Gascoigne's levels of discipline remain a worry, he refused to be seduced when one of the space invaders set off in chase of him.
Gazza was autographing nothing, and simply ran for cover. If that was one surprise then the other was that in a stadium so recently constructed undersoil heating was not included amongst the facilities to help provide a more amenable surface. But then serious derby conflicts are meant to be jarring, bone hard affairs void of lasting subtlety. A perfect Riverside surface then.
Initially, Middlesbrough looked as though they had the necessary power and focus to make it a one-way affair, especially in view of Newcastle's frail travelling record. And when after a robust opening period they established a 17th-minute lead Gullit's dreadlocked hope of prolonging deadlock was in pieces.
Gascoigne, who conducted his pre-match warm-up routine in the company of his two-year-old son Regan, demonstrated that the quality time spent with family members had not been wasted.
It was Gascoigne's quite deliberately placed corner which found his intended target, Andy Townsend, in plenty of space 14 yards out. Townsend looked as though he had enough time to consult the match programme before leisurely placing his first goal of the season beyond Harper.
It was hardly the start Gullit wanted, scarcely the one Harper needed in this his first Premiership start. Yet any fears he had about what was to follow abated as Boro failed to build on their lead.
So it was of little surprise that Middlesbrough sacrificed their lead before the first half was over. No surprise, though, that the equaliser was not exactly the product of some fluent move. The nuts and bolts of it were far more common or garden, Middlesbrough making an awful meal of attempting to clear a Keith Gillespie corner. When, at the umpteenth attempt, Dean Gordon headed clear of his area, it was volleyed back spectacularly to give the French defender Charvet his first goal in the black and white of Newcastle.
The arrival of Stephen Glass, from the Newcastle bench, was designed to improve the service to Ferguson, but within 15 minutes of his arrival they were behind again to a scruffy sort of goal. Hamilton Ricard and Colin Cooper were behind the thrust and though Aaron Hughes got half a block on Cooper's shot the deflection served only to limit Harper's saving possibilities.
Not that he could be criticised having earlier performed minor wonders to deny Brian Deane and Townsend of goals - and ultimately that helped Newcastle save the match.
Goals: Townsend (13) 1-0; Charvet (38) 1-1; Cooper (59) 2-1; Dabizas (83) 2-2.
Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Vickers, Cooper, Pallister; Fleming, Mustoe, Gascoigne (Stamp, 84), Townsend, Gordon; Ricard, Deane (Beck, 87). Substitute not used: Roberts (gk).
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Harper; Charvet, Hughes, Howey, Barton (Dabizas, 82); Gillespie, Lee, Speed, Solano (Glass, 45); Andersson (Dalglish, 76), Ferguson. Substitutes not used: Hamann, Perez (gk).
Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).
Bookings: Middlesbrough: Vickers.
Man of the match: Harper.
Attendance: 34,629.Reuse content