Football: Keegan rues late lapses: Guy Hodgson reflects on how the Euro-party atmosphere went to Newcastle United's head

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THE crowd chanting outside the main entrance to St James' Park was revealing. The sound should have belonged to Newcastle, a celebration of a successful night in Europe. Instead, the words and accents were Basque.

'Our fans are singing in Spanish now,' Kevin Keegan said wryly, trying to draw humour from an evening which had left him florid-faced with frustration. Newcastle had thrown away a seemingly insuperable advantage in their Uefa Cup second-round tie against Athletic Bilbao, and the home manager and the visiting supporters knew it.

Victory in the first leg of any European tie ought not to be despised but this 3-2 success came as close as it could to opprobrium. 'If we had secured that result after going 2-0 down we'd have thought it was a good night,' Keegan said. It was a half-hearted attempt to put a gloss on a tarnished achievement.

There was a fear that Newcastle's insistence on attack might cost the team once they met seasoned campaigners, and on Tuesday that worry stood up to be counted. To go 3-0 ahead after an hour and then come away with only a one-goal advantage heavily handicapped by the away-goals rule smacked of negligence.

Keegan was reluctant to lay into his team because he recognised the initial advantage secured by strikes from Ruel Fox, Peter Beardsley and Andy Cole had been an achievement against accomplished opponents, but he still expressed some displeasure. 'I just gave them a few home truths,' he said.

Those domestic realities were couched in questions. Why did the team risk all in a reckless pursuit of goals when the tie was as good as over? Why did more experienced players like Philippe Albert, Marc Hottiger and Peter Beardsley not use experience and take the sting out of Bilbao attacks by playing possession football? Why did Keegan not protect what had been won with an extra defender?

When Keegan examines the first and third questions he will probably reflect on Uefa Cup matches last month which may have clouded judgements. Against Royal Antwerp, Newcastle continued to roll forward and the result was more goals and more humiliation piled on the Belgians. If it had worked then, against the Cup- Winners' Cup finalists of 1993, there was no reason to believe it would not prevail again against the less celebrated Spaniards.

The middle question demands more complex scrutiny. The players got trapped in the carnival mood which enveloped St James' Park and they began to play exhibition stuff when they ought to have gone for the Bilbao jugular.

Weighed down by over-confidence and tiring, Newcastle could not respond in kind when Bilbao upped their pace. They might have wanted to put their foot on the ball but they could not get hold of it.

Even so, Keegan remained upbeat. 'It's not over,' he said. There's a lot of character in the side. We're always capable of scoring goals.'

The problem for him and Newcastle is that the team's late lapse has left Bilbao requiring only one on 1 November.