Football / First Division: Magpies stars rise on basic instincts: Henry Winter sees Newcastle brush aside another threat to their early season invincibility

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The Independent Online
IT MAY seem a basic footballing principle to older generations but a pivotal reason for Newcastle United's record-breaking success in the First Division is that all the players Kevin Keegan employs can control the ball. United play to feet, build moves, and create chances for a wide range of players. If it all sounds like the Liverpool of old, well, blame Keegan and Terry McDermott.

'The biggest club outside the Premier League is this club,' Keegan said, adding that the players, the wages they earn and the football they produce, are all of Premier League standard. The gates - and 7,000 were locked out again for the visit of Tranmere Rovers - also belonged to England's elite. 'Better actually,' Keegan said, 'more like Serie A'

The success of the black and whites, after years of failure, is only part of the reason that the turnstiles are clicking incessantly. A city reared on great individuals like Milburn and Gascoigne expects to be entertained; the current Newcastle team have no headline stars (although Lee Clark, Gavin Peacock and Liam O'Brien are coming close) but are a collection of good professionals, driven by an inspiring support, and a desire to avoid last season's constant fight against relegation.

'What is happening this year is a lot to do with what happened last year,' Keegan said. 'Players who were here don't want to be in that situation again.' Although not at their dynamic best against a gritty Rovers side, Newcastle fully deserved their 10th win in 10 attempts, ensured in the 37th minute when O'Brien played a devastating one-two with Mick Quinn in the box before clipping the ball over from the right to the far post where David Kelly headed his eighth goal of the season.

Eight points clear of their nearest challengers, Charlton Athletic, the Magpies are likely to go on collecting records until they return to the top flight, where they expect to stay. 'Nobody can give me a good reason why this club cannot be as big as Liverpool over the next 10 to 15 years,' Keegan said.

Newcastle are the prime movers in a division well stocked with sides that a neutral would pay to watch. The Premier League may have conjured up some spectacular goals but few eye-catching teams or games so far.

The Football League's flagship is being piloted by Newcastle, and crewed by some of Britain's brightest managers, like Brian Little at Leicester City (fourth) and Glenn Hoddle at Swindon Town (sixth). Even Cambridge appear to be following the trend, with their manager, John Beck, describing his team's performance in getting a 2-2 draw at Millwall on Saturday as 'good, fast attacking football, full of passing'.

How long the fun lasts is debatable. The onset of winter and the escalation of injuries can hamper any team's style and effectiveness and with Newcastle disappearing over the horizon the odds on going up are longer. But it seems to be accepted that the long-ball route to promotion is not now the immediate answer. Ipswich Town were champions last season and they eshewed Route One, as did the teams who went up with them, Middlesbrough and Blackburn.

The key is clearly to employ a manager who believes in passing and supporting, rather than kicking and rushing. Fitting, then, that Keegan should receive the Barclays bubbly as Manager of the Month. 'The time I would like to win it is next May with the First Division championship, FA Cup and Anglo-Italian Cup all in the trophy cabinet.' It's not impossible.

Goal: Kelly (37) 1-0.

Newcastle United: Wright; Venison, Beresford, O'Brien, Scott, Howey, Lee, Peacock, Kelly, Clark, Quinn. Substitutes not used: Carr, Stimson.

Tranmere Rovers: Nixon; Higgins, Brannan, Martindale (Irons, 75), Mungall, Vickers, Morrissey, Aldridge, Malkin (Cooper, 85), McNab, Nevin.

Referee: I Cruikshanks (Hartlepool).

(Photograph omitted)