Football: Oldham hear the alarm ringing

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Newcastle United. . .3

Oldham Athletic . . .2

ON LEAVING the Milburn Stand, Joe Royle could have been forgiven for climbing aboard St James' black- and-white fire engine instead of the Oldham coach parked alongside. Royle's experience at dealing with football's emergencies is well noted, his motivational powers having saved them last May, but doubts are proliferating over whether he possesses the equipment to cope with this year's cruelly congested run-in. The sirens are sounding louder.

Royle's players display spirit in abundance, but to toil is not enough. Short of pace up front, in the absence of the speedy but imprecise Darren Beckford, the Premiership's 21st club struggle to punish defences, even one as prone to self-destruction as Newcastle's.

This attacking flaw was highlighted by events at the other end where the acceleration and control of Ruel Fox and Andy Cole continually troubled Oldham's full-backs. Time and again the visitors were indebted to Jon Hallworth - the keeper twice stopping Cole from passing Newcastle's scoring record - and Richard Jobson, whose calmness, aerial strength and tackling subdued Cole's central incursions. Jobson's mature contribution was a strong counter-point to the Toon's pounds 2.7m centre-half, Darren Peacock, whose lapses afforded Oldham their equalisers.

Peacock's floundering moments were forgiven afterwards by the man who paid such an inflated sum. Kevin Keegan would prefer to win 5-4 rather than 1-0, such is his welcome addiction to attacking, but if Newcastle do return to European football for the first time since 1977-78, such defensive shortcomings against Continental forwards will ensure trips involving passports are few.

Newcastle's noble obsession with relentless forward momentum secured them the lead after 19 minutes, Fox arriving at the far post to turn in Cole's wayward cross-shot. But the advantage was squandered by Peacock, whose over-hit back-pass conceded a 43rd-minute corner and Oldham's first riposte. Unchecked by Peacock, Jobson headed Mark Brennan's flag-kick goalwards only for Pavel Srnicek to parry on the line; Jobson completed his task with a routine finish.

Fox, Lee and Cole combined at speed on the right flank to set up Peter Beardsley's 56th-minute far-post tap-in but within 60 seconds United's defenders had erred again, allowing Graeme Sharp a simple, if well-placed, equaliser.

Newcastle, though, deserved the victory which keeps them a point clear of Arsenal, the full allocation arriving courtesy of the irresistible Lee. The earnest wish of the midfielder's mother, who keeps ordering 'Rob Lee for England' T- shirts, will surely be granted by Terry Venables soon.

Keegan, who has turned Lee from good pro to potential international, was saddened by Royle's plight but felt his men's hunger for Europe was greater than Oldham's desire for survival - although the Latics' gutsy showing gave some hope for a 12-day, five-game marathon commencing at Wimbledon tomorrow. 'We're chasing different rainbows,' Keegan concluded. Oldham appear to be pursuing theirs in an emergency vehicle.

Goals: Fox (19) 1-0; Jobson (43) 1-1; Beardsley (56) 2-1; Sharp (57) 2-2; Lee (63) 3-2.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Venison, Peacock, Neilson, Beresford; Fox, Bracewell, Lee, Sellars; Beardsley, Cole. Substitutes not used: Mathie, Robinson, Hooper (gk).

Oldham Athletic (4-4-2): Hallworth; Fleming, Jobson, Redmond, Makin; Bernard (Holden, h-t), Milligan, Henry, Brennan; Sharp, McCarthy. Substitutes not used: Barlow, Gerrard (gk).

Referee: D Allison (Lancaster).

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