JACKIE MILBURN'S statue was bewigged within hours of Ruud Gullit's appointment, but the Angel of the North remained undreadlocked when the Dutchman's second coming kicked off yesterday afternoon. Judging by what followed, its skull could be exposed to the elements for a while yet.
It took just 45 minutes for the rapturous reception accorded Gullit to be turned to boos for the team. In that time, memories had been revived of the downside of the cavalier Keegan days with a shocking defensive performance. Though things improved in the second half, Gullit having abandoned his seat in the stand to take over the team, it was still a crushing disappointment after the heady anticipation of the past few days.
"It was very interesting," said Gullit, who will at least no longer have to deal with inflated expectation. "The first half was not very good and I couldn't resist doing something about it. In the second half at least we created some chances. I saw some good things and we'll work on them. It will be a hard job."
Liverpool, who move top of the table, will not be unhappy that the after- match focus was on Newcastle's failings rather than their own qualities. This is because the attention would have fallen upon the remarkable Michael Owen, whose 15-minute first-half hat-trick punctured the Newcastle hype. The clinical nature of Owen's finishing augurs well for England's trip to Sweden this week as does the form of Paul Ince.
Patrik Berger scored Liverpool's fourth in first-half injury-time. Newcastle's only consolation was a debut goal for Stephane Guivarc'h that, for five first-half minutes, threatened to bring them back in the game. It proved a false dawn.
Gullit had not picked this team but the change of emphasis was clear in its attacking intent. Gary Speed was pushed up alongside Guivarc'h and Shearer while Carl Serrant was given a debut in midfield. With Phillippe Albert recalled, three of Kenny Dalglish's buys, Alessandro Pistone, Andreas Andersson and Nikos Dabizas, made way.
Newcastle, inevitably, had begun with plenty of attacking brio but could only muster a mis-hit shot by Speed. Then Dietmar Hamann went off injured and Liverpool took control. After 16 minutes Ince hit a piledriver from the edge of the area, Given parried it and, from an acute angle, Owen thumped a volley inside the near post.
A minute later Berger fed McManaman, who moved the ball on to Owen as he danced unnoticed through the black-and-white statues. He drew Given and slipped the ball between his legs. The home crowd fell silent. The sound of the joyous away support singing "sack the board" was greeted with nods of assent.
Liverpool relaxed and Phil Babb, short of passing options, was caught in possession by Rob Lee. He passed to Guivarc'h who proved, contrary to popular opinion, that he could put the ball in an empty net from eight yards. Mind, it only went in off the post.
Newcastle briefly revived but then Karlheinz Riedle caught Laurent Charvet dwelling on the ball, it ran to Owen and he was off, spearing the ball over Given. Owen, and Liverpool, could have had more but they settled for Berger's goal, after he had run through the defence. In the second period Newcastle reverted to 4-4-2 and at least stemmed the flow of goals, even if they never threatened a recovery.
All but one of Newcastle's support went home in shock. The other was already in hospital after his girlfriend went into labour. It is to be hoped this birth was less painful than that of his club's new era.
Goals: Owen (16) 0-1; Owen (17) 0-2; Guivarc'h (27) 1-2; Owen (32) 1- 3; Berger (45) 1-4.
Newcastle United (4-3-3): Given; Charvet, Pearce, Albert; Watson (Dabizas, 77), Lee, Hamann (Glass, 12), Serrant (Barton, h-t); Guivarc'h, Shearer, Speed. Substitutes not used: Perez (gk), Dalglish.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Friedel; Heggem, Carragher, Babb, Staunton; McManaman (Thompson, 88), Ince, Redknapp (McAteer, 86) Berger; Riedle, Owen. Substitutes not used: James (gk), Kvarme, Harkness.
Referee: G Barber (Surrey).
Bookings: Newcastle: Albert, Pearce. Liverpool: Babb, McManaman.
Man of the match: Owen.
Photograph, page 21