Football: Down-to-earth days for Toon Army

Simon Turnbull believes the title has become a distant dream for Newcastle
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At first glance it seemed that Derek Wright, Newcastle United's physiotherapist, was clutching the No 9 board as he stood on the apron of Pride Park's pitch. He was, in fact, holding the sign upside down. Unfortunately for Newcastle, their No 9 is still undergoing physiotherapy. Alan Shearer is not expected to return to Premiership duties until February. The sobering thought for the travelling Toon Army on Boxing Day was that Newcastle might need more than the goalscoring power of Shearer to rescue a season in the throes of dying on its feet.

The replacement of the No 6, Steve Howey, by John Barnes, failed to turn the tide at Derby. Newcastle lost again, for the fourth time in six Premiership games. They have gleaned just two points from those matches and failed to score in five of them.

"It's a concern, obviously," Kenny Dalglish, the Newcastle manager, said, when the latter statistic was brought to his attention in the Pride Park press room. "We're not scoring goals, but we're doing everything we can to put that right. You can fling statistics at us, but if you analyse all of those games we've been unlucky not to score."

That may indeed be so - against Manchester United a week ago Barnes and Stuart Pearce were denied by Peter Schmeichel at his world-class best and, at Derby, John Beresford was thwarted by Mart Poom's crossbar. In the eyes of the Toon Army, however, their leader of 10 months has not yet earned the stripes that run down the arms of his managerial jacket.

When Newcastle lost to Liverpool at Anfield in March, one of their disgruntled followers strode on to the astro-track and deposited his black-and-white shirt on Dalglish's head. Liverpool provide the opposition at St James' Park this afternoon and the natives may well shift from the restless to the revolting if Newcastle draw another blank. Already, they have failed to score in their last three League matches at home and the last time they did that, in the autumn of 1988, they were relegated.

Not since the early weeks of the Kevin Keegan era has the "R" word been mentioned on Tyneside. It seems inconceivable that Dalglish and the players at his disposal, for all their lack of clout up front and their shortcomings elsewhere, might be confronted by the spectre of relegation. The black and white of the Premiership table, however, shows the fact that Newcastle are just seven points ahead of Tottenham this morning.

At the very least, the championship battle has been lost for another season. Manchester United are 20 points distant on the horizon and, while Dalglish has refused to raise the white flag, Freddie Shepherd, Newcastle's chairman of three weeks, acknowledged: "It is no use kidding ourselves. The title is slipping away... the Liverpool game is rapidly emerging as our most important of the season."

He was referring not to this afternoon's encounter but to Liverpool's return to St James' in the quarter-finals of the Coca-Cola Cup on 7 January. The old League Cup competition might not be Alex Ferguson's cup of tea but, then, Manchester United have not been waiting since 1955 to display a domestic prize of any particular note in their trophy cabinet. It is, nevertheless, a mark of how far Newcastle have fallen that a Premiership fixture against Liverpool, before the turn of the year, could be construed as a dress rehearsal.

In reality, Newcastle's need to win today is acute - not to keep the lower orders at a comfortable distance but to assuage their increasingly disaffected followers too. St James' Park echoed to the unfamiliar sound of booze after the goalless draw against Derby 11 days ago and the 4,000 or so Geordies at Pride Park were clearly not impressed that Dalglish chose to start with Barnes and Faustino Asprilla on the bench and then, after David Batty was sent off, to chase a 1-0 deficit by withdrawing Temuri Ketsbaia from attack to midfield. The mood among the Toon Army is worsening and Newcastle could have trouble keeping their 36,000 season- ticket holders, let alone filling the extra 15,000 seats they are planning to install at St James' Park.

The football folk of Tyneside are simply not accustomed to following a middle-of-the-road team. Ever since Keegan arrived as manager, the boys in black and white have been shooting for the stars. But down-to-earth days such as these were inevitable and it is difficult not to have some sympathy for Dalglish.

The days when Newcastle's manager could dip into Sir John Hall's pot of gold are gone now. Their imminent ending was one reason Keegan resolved to leave - after the Boxing Day defeat at Blackburn last year. At that time it was already clear that his gamble of putting the bank on Shearer was not paying off. Newcastle, even with their pounds 15m man, were not championship material.

The talk of the Toon yesterday was when it had ever been so bad. The answer was just a year ago. Newcastle, then, had gone seven Premiership matches without a win.