Football: Newcastle look blunt without their spur: Commentary

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The Independent Online
THEY'RE OFF, but it was the sort of start reminiscent of Aintree's infamous red flag, and a couple of the favourites, who set off the wrong way, would certainly settle for a re-run.

Steady lads. Don't panic. Early results are as reliable a barometer as the old swingometer's first twitch on election night, and if Ipswich, Sheffield United or Everton do a United this season it is likely to be of the Cumbrian, rather than Mancunian, variety. Carlisle, famously, led the table after three games on their one excursion into The Big League, only to be relegated after one season.

Conventional wisdom has it that no conclusions should be drawn before everyone has played at least 10 games. That, and the fact that Manchester's pride lost their opening match 12 months ago, to Sheffield United, will be of comfort to Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday, both of whom did nothing for their championship credentials with the dodgiest of false starts.

Give them time. Both will be up there when it matters. So, too, will Newcastle United, according to many respected judges, their erstwhile manager, Ossie Ardiles, among them.

Maybe. A dubious maybe. First time out, they did little to justify Ardiles' assertion that they are top-six material - let alone Kevin Keegan's pre-season suggestion that they could finish in the top three.

Keegan insists that his team are not a one-man band, and can overcome the loss of Peter Beardsley, whose shattered cheekbone will keep him out for six weeks, but against Tottenham on Saturday, all the signs were to the contrary.

Spurs stilled raucous St James' Park, packed to the rafters for Newcastle's return to The Big Time, by outplaying the First Division champions, and won much more deservedly than the 1-0 scoreline would indicate.

Liam O'Brien shivered a post in the last minute to leave the most partisan of home crowds convinced that they should have had something from the game, but by that stage Tottenham should have been two or three up, and cruising.

The Geordies, long on passion and lungpower, made it a marvellous,

I-was-there occasion, but their team were unable to do justice to the setting.

Without Beardsley, they had no focal point; no one capable of orchestrating the passing game they want to play. Their instincts are the right ones, but they need an experienced strategist to translate all the good intentions into penetrative progress.

Tottenham were well below full strength, deprived of Barmby, Anderton, Allen and Edinburgh, yet they were able to dictate the pace and pattern throughout, with Vinny Samways the dominant influence.

It was not the outcome the black and white legions had expected when they greeted their heroes with a fearful din and a giant inflatable bottle of Newcastle Brown. 'Hello,' slurred a Spender clone. 'Gazza's back.'

Dream on. A few bars of Elvis - who else to herald a rebirth? - and a reminder to Barry Moat to leave at half-time ('You're getting married') and we were off and running. Or off and scurrying, in Newcastle's case.

Tottenham, neat and purposeful, made the ball do the work, and the new boys were given their first lesson. At this level, you keep possession or chase the game.

Spurs played well, but should have scored more than once against a slow, square defence whose attempts to play offside bordered on the suicidal. In fairness, they were without Barmby and Anderton, both of whom would have had a field day.

No matter, after their traumatic summer a win was a win, and Stone- face Sugar was moved to smile at last - probably at the fickleness of the football fan. The demonstrations on Terry Venables' behalf failed to materialise, and suddenly it was Ossie Ardiles' blue and white army. How soon they forget. Another good result at home to Arsenal tonight and it will be Terry Who?

The team, it must be said, gave their supporters no cause for complaint, and if there is lingering resentment in the dressing-room over Venables' departure and Ardiles' succession, you would not have guessed it.

Teddy Sheringham, who has been portrayed as the rebel in chief, was commitment personified, drilling in a cracking goal and deserving one more, at least.

The leading scorer in the Premier League last season got off the mark courtesy of Samways, who picked him out on the edge of the penalty area with a delightful long pass. Sheringham still had a lot to do, but he finished with the aplomb of the international striker he has become, drifting away from Kevin Scott and drawing the goalkeeper before steering the ball past him.

Newcastle huffed and puffed, but got nowhere against a defence in which Gary Mabbutt and the newcomer, Colin Calderwood, had too much nous for Andy Cole and Malcolm Allen.

Cole, so prolific last season, spurned a couple of straightforward chances, and appeared to suffer more than most from Big Day nerves. Like the rest, he will benefit enormously from Beardsley's on-the-spot direction.

Tottenham's authority was such that Pavel Srnicek was much the busier keeper, making notable saves to thwart Sheringham, Gordon Durie, Dean Austin and Jason Dozzell, who looked a useful acquisition in midfield.

Newcastle's response amounted to little more than hit-and-hope potshots, although O'Brien, with his 25-yard post-bender, and Robert Lee, on the follow up, might have pinched a point at the death.

It would have been more than they deserved, as Keegan readily acknowledged. 'The occasion got to a few players,' he said. 'We can play much better than that. I was looking for someone to lift us, but nobody was going to do it. It was just a struggle from start to finish.

'I said to the players: You're in with the big boys now, and if you play like that you'll get beaten.'

Next Saturday: Manchester United away. Welcome to the Premiership.

Goals: Sheringham (36) 0-1.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Venison, Howey, Scott, Beresford; Clark, Lee, Bracewell, Papavasiliou (O'Brien, 75); Cole, Allen (Watson, 61). Substitute not used: Burridge (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Thorstvedt; Austin, Calderwood, Mabbutt, Campbell; Howells, Sedgley, Dozzell, Samways; Durie (Turner, 74), Sheringham. Substitutes not used: Walker (gk), Caskey.

Referee: D Allison (Lancaster).

(Photograph omitted)