Football: Newcastle are kept warm by Cole fire: Leeds' hopes of closing the gap on Manchester United dashed at last

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Newcastle United. . . . .1

Leeds United. . . . . . .1

MANCHESTER UNITED are so far over the horizon that the real race in the Premiership is for the runners-up spot, and Leeds held off Newcastle's vigorous challenge for second place with a typically disciplined performance at St James' Park last night.

The champions of 1991-92 have lost only one of their last 16 League games, yet are still 12 points behind the runaway leaders, who will have seen nothing to spoil their festive celebrations in a dour scrap littered with seven bookings. Silly, really. It was competitive enough, but never that sort of match.

Leeds, always dangerous on the break, threatened to win it against the run of play when Chris Fairclough headed them in front midway through the second half, but Andy Cole's 25th goal of an increasingly prolific season ensured justice was done.

Leeds felt they might have stolen it, Brian Deane having shivered a post; Newcastle would have had maximum points, and second place, but for the save which saw Mark Beeney repel Peter Beardsley's penalty. A draw was just about right.

Second versus fourth, Howard Wilkinson's grafters against Kevin Keegan's passing team. The contrast in styles was full of promise but it proved to be a real slow burner, disappointingly reluctant to catch fire.

Sod's law dictated that on the day David Rocastle was transferred because he was unable to displace Gordon Strachan, the durable Scot was injured. In his absence, Leeds redeployed in the same 4-1-2-3 formation Arsenal had used against them on Saturday.

Cole may capture all the headlines, but Beardsley is the man who makes Newcastle tick and Wilkinson opted to man-mark him, withdrawing Fairclough from his new midfield role for the purpose. Good strategy this, with the most gifted player on view unusually subdued.

Not that Leeds were in defensive mood. Far from it. They pushed both full-backs forward as auxiliary midfielders and played with three forwards instead of their customary two to probe a suspect defence.

The best chance of an undistinguished first half fell not to the persistent Cole, who failed with four attempts, but to Leeds. They had spent the morning brushing up on their set-piece routines and the diligence which was to have its reward when Fairclough scored might have profited them much earlier, when Barry Venison brought down Gary McAllister 20 yards out. McAllister got up to chip the free-kick over the wall, sending Hooper scrambling to his right to pull off a notable save. Leeds were even closer when Gary Kelly sent Deane striding away to shoot against Hooper's left-hand post from 15 yards.

With little else to sing about, the crowd entertained themselves with choruses of 'Santa is a Geordie'. Their attention was jerked back to the football after 62 minutes, when Robert Lee tumbled over Tony Dorigo's challenge and Mark Beeney fell to his left to save Beardsley's daisy-cutter of a penalty.

Leeds played with spirit and determination and were not unduly flattered when Fairclough met McAllister's free-kick from the left with a firm, downward header which bounced past Hooper and his attendant defenders. No cause, though, is ever lost with goal-king Cole around, and with five minutes left the predator extraordinaire fastened on to a pass from Paul Bracewell to flash a shot across Beeney.

That was that. 'A typical English football match,' was Keegan's verdict. Damnation with faint praise.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Hooper; Watson, Venison, Howey, Beresford; Lee, Bracewell, Clark (Mathie, 74), Sellars; Beardsley, Cole. Substitutes not used: Elliott, Srinicek (gk).

Leeds United (4-1-2-3): Beeney; Kelly, Newsome, Pemberton, Dorigo; Fairclough; McAllister, Hodge; Whelan (Sharp, 87), Deane, Rod Wallace. Substitutes not used: Wetherall, Lukic (gk).

Referee: P Don (Middlesex).

(Photograph omitted)