Football / FA Cup: Newcastle leave Derby to supply romance

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The Independent Online
The fifth round echoed to the painful sounds of Davids everywhere getting a fearful going over from Goliath, which is not what the FA Cup is all about, but all's well that ends well, and yesterday's quarter- final draw was full of promise, featuring seven good Premier League sides, with Derby County to satisfy the romantics on their big day.

Sadly, it was bye-bye Bolton Wanderers, whose dashing, deserved triumph at Anfield remains the highlight of the competition to date, but the last representatives left from the old Third Division were never going to win the thing, and in that sense the best interests of the uncommitted were served by Derby's continued progress at their expense.

Cup finals are enriched with an extra spice when a team from what most of us still regard as the Second Division get to Wembley to bite and chase as underdogs. The Rams may be making a pig's ear of promotion, but they look better equipped than Sunderland were last season to go all the way.

Newcastle fancied themselves in the role, but the irresistible form which swept them into a 15-point lead at the top of the First Division has deserted them of late, and their pre-match insistence that the Cup was no more than a distraction from their primary objective never augured well. The omens were not good, and the impression that it was not to be their day became overpowering when flu prevented Kevin Keegan, their manager-cum- inspiration, from travelling to Ewood Park.

Blackburn may have left it until the last minute for their 1-0 win, but they were clearly the better side. Newcastle never really threatened an upset and, in fairness, had no complaints about the outcome.

They are now free to concentrate on promotion, which suddenly seems to require their undivided attention. What once looked like an unassailable lead was trimmed to four points by West Ham United's 2-1 win at Watford on Saturday, and could be down to one next Sunday, when Newcastle must travel to Upton Park.

For a reminder of how the wheels can come off the most expensive of bandwagons, they had only to consult their hosts. Twelve months ago this weekend, Blackburn were seven points clear at the top of what was then still the Second Division. They were to finish sixth, winning only three of their last 16 League games, and gaining promotion by the back door, via the play-off lottery.

The parallel is striking. Newcastle are without a win in the League for more than a month, last Tuesday's 2-0 defeat at Portsmouth preceded by draws with Derby, Luton Town and Southend United. In their last five games in the First Division they have scored just three goals.

For Ipswich Town, who came through with a storming run last season, read West Ham, and possibly Portsmouth, this time.

Understandably, in view of umcomfortably recent experience, Kenny Dalglish was equivocal about Newcastle's prospects. 'Maybe this could help them,' he said. 'It depends on their reaction to this result. If they respond positively, they shouldn't have too many problems.' If not? The question went unanswered.

They are not required to play teams of Blackburn's strength in the First Division, of course, but failure to see off the likes of Luton and Southend must concern Keegan, whose ambitious attempts to sign Mark Hughes or Les Ferdinand were further explained by Saturday's shot-shy performance.

Rovers have hit problems of their own, and came to the tie after leaking 14 goals in four straight defeats, yet they made the Newcastle attack look like San Marino on a bad day. Kevin Moran, restored in central defence in preference to Sweden's Patrik Andersson, was like Gulliver in Lilliput when it came to picking off the sporadic, lightweight incursions of David Kelly and Gavin Peacock.

A tie which had promised so much was something of a disappointment, and not just because the would-be giant-killers lacked the weaponry for the job.

The pace was unremitting, the commitment intense but, with the honourable exceptions of Liam O'Brien and Roy Wegerle, no one dared try an adventurous or inventive pass, and width and penetration were much-lamented absentees.

In Newcastle's case, this was probably part of the game plan. Keep it tight, with the wide men behind the ball, and get them back to St James' Park for a replay.

For Blackburn, there were extenuating circumstances. Stuart Ripley, one of the most dangerous wingers in the country, was called away only an hour before the kick- off, when his wife went into labour.

Unfortunately, the players seemed to come out in sympathy, and laborious was the only word for a tie long on sound and fury, but lacking in end product.

Kevin Scott and Kelly should have done better with far-post headers for Newcastle, while Moran and Jason Wilcox ought to have scored at close range for Rovers, but a goalless draw was looking like a fitting outcome until Wegerle's last-gasp intervention.

Appropriately, it was the game's most imaginative influence who obviated the need for a replay, instantly controlling David May's hit and hope long ball on the edge of the penalty area before shimmying past Barry Venison and Brian Kilcline and angling his shot home, from right to left.

With just 30 seconds left, there was no way back and, for the first time, the 'Blaydon Races' brigade fell silent.

The Cup a diversion? Not to the black and white legions reared on tales of the Fifties, when Jackie Milburn and Co won it three times in five years.

They identified not with talk of other priorities, but with 'Killer' Kilcline's reaction. The pony- tailed man-mountain may look more Byrds than Magpies, but he had set his heart on going back to Wembley, where he lifted the old pot on Coventry City's behalf in 1987, and the final whistle saw him sink slowly to his knees.

He, and Newcastle, will have to pick themselves off the floor sooner rather than later if the promotion dream, too, is not to have a rude awakening.

And what of Blackburn, through to the last eight for the first time since that most evocative of years, 1966? With Alan Shearer fit and well, they would be worth a modest investment. Without him, the Lovejoy beer money is on Sheffield Wednesday. And West Ham for the First Division title.

Goal: Wegerle (89) 1-0.

Blackburn Rovers: Mimms; May, Wright, Sherwood, Hendry, Moran, Atkins, Cowans, Wegerle, Newell, Wilcox. Substitutes not used: Dobson, Livingstone.

Newcastle United: Srnicek; Venison, Beresford, O'Brien, Scott, Kilcline, Lee, Peacock, Kelly, Clark, Sheedy (Bracewell, 67). Substitute not used: Neilson.

Referee: K Cooper (Pontypridd).

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