Football: Newcastle's honourable intentions: Commentary

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The Independent Online
A BAN on transfers during the season? Manchester United will lead the opposition to that old chestnut, which would surely have cost them the championship last season.

It is not an original idea, of course, but then marriage to Queen's Park Rangers is more borrowed than new and, in resurrecting it, Gerry Francis has at least provided a more interesting talking point than names and numbers.

Irritated by the timing of Andy Sinton's defection to Sheffield Wednesday, and unsettling speculation about Les Ferdinand and Darren Peacock, the QPR manager is the latest in a long line of have-nots to object to a system loaded in favour of the money men.

Francis says it would be fairer, and a more meaningful test of managerial skill, if clubs were restricted to buying players before and after, but not during, the season. Reasonable enough, but, like the notion that grand prix cars should have the same power unit, powerful vested interests are drawn up four-square against it.

The big clubs - the ones with the influence - see nothing wrong with plundering the disadvantaged majority, justifying their avarice with the truism that the transfer merry-go- round enables the smaller fry to make ends meet.

Moral and commercial considerations apart, it is doubtful whether a majority of the game's following would support Francis' proposition. Transfers undoubtedly stimulate interest - witness the success of the Dream League, in which managerial fantasists buy and sell like The Doc on speed.

There will be sympathy for QPR, and others prey to the priviliged few, but there is something to be said, too, for the shrewd, mid-season investment. Do we really want to deny managers an inspired signing like Eric Cantona, without whom United would again have missed out on their appointment with destiny last May?

Spare a thought, also, for promoted teams like Newcastle United, who cannot be sure how their players will perform at the higher level until they get out there and try. The newcomers deserve their chance to take stock and bring in reinforcements, as required, after a few games.

On the evidence of Saturday's visit to Old Trafford, Newcastle will not need too many. Successive defeats by Tottenham and Coventry City had them travelling in hope more than expectation, but they gave as good as they got against surprisingly muted champions, and were good value for their 1-1 draw, and a reassuring first point in the Premiership.

Kevin Keegan's team have been held back by injuries to important players, and can only get better with the return of Steve Howey, Scott Sellars, Franz Carr and Peter Beardsley. On Saturday, to their credit, they played their more celebrated opponents at their own passing game, and emerged with honours even.

United, after their flier at the expense of Norwich and Sheffield United, hit a brick wall constructed largely, it must be said, of their own complacency. The casual attitude first evident in Gary Pallister's walkabout start spread to all areas, and left Alex Ferguson bemoaning 'slackness, silly mistakes . . . our most careless performance for a year.'

Allowed to work the ball around in the pressing style they favour, Newcastle made good progress throughout a game played at breakneck pace, and might have scored early through Andy Cole or Liam O'Brien.

United, too, created promising openings for Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane before Giggs brought the house down with one of those delicious free- kicks which, at 19, are already his speciality.

Newcastle, posting a wall Hadrian would have coveted, appeared to have all eventualities covered but, on seeing the Welsh prodigy address the ball on the edge of the D, Pavel Srnicek panicked and took a half-step to his left, back into his defenders' domain. Fatal. Giggs spotted the goalkeeper's error and curled his shot, sweet as you like, into the Czechoslovak's top right corner.

Lovely to watch, it was, nevertheless, a bad goal from the defensive standpoint. Some sides would have been deflated by it, and buckled, but Newcastle are made of sterner stuff, and battled back for a deserved draw.

Cole, quick and bright, in the style of Ian Wright, carried their main threat. Within inches of scoring when he nudged just wide of the far post, he then saw Lee Clark go tantalisingly close to dispatching his measured cross before the needful was finally done, after 70 minutes.

Niki Papavassiliou, the shirt stenciller's nightmare, owes his place to Sellars' absence, but had a smashing match, and will take some shifting. Busy and inventive, it was the Cypriot who set up the equaliser with a nicely weighted through pass which enabled Cole to beat Peter Schmeichel to the ball and steer it in from six yards.

United sent on Brian McClair for the blinkered Andrei Kanchelskis, and the Scot might have won it for them when Mark Hughes put him through and he shot straight at the advancing goalkeeper. Keane also made a mess of a decent chance, and Hughes had a typical thrash tipped over at the death, but the draw was about right. 'We got what we deserved,' was Ferguson's succinct summary.

Complacency, at least, is unlikely to be a problem for his players at Villa Park tonight, with last season's runners-up champing at the bit. Ron Atkinson, subdued as ever, forecasts 'a sparkling game, an excellent advertisement for the game in this country. Electric.'

Another shock for United, perhaps?

Goals: Giggs (40) 1-0; Cole (70) 1-1.

Manchester United (4-5-1): Schmeichel; Parker (Sharpe, 85), Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis (McClair, 70), Keane, Robson, Ince, Giggs; Hughes. Substitute not used: Sealey (gk).

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Watson, Venison, Scott, Beresford; Lee, Bracewell, O'Brien, Papavassiliou; Clark, Cole. Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Allen, Appleby.

Referee: K Morton (Bury St Edmunds).

(Photograph omitted)

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