It was Leeds United, in fact, who had the first, the second and the last laughs. Goals by Harry Kewell, Lee Bowyer and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink gave David O'Leary's upwardly mobile team three points on Tyneside as the wrapping was finally taken off Newcastle United's pounds 23m partnership.
Shearer and Ferguson made little impression individually, let alone in tandem. That was hardly surprising given the lack of service they enjoyed. Even Eric and Ernie needed Eddie Braben writing lines for them. And Big Dunc and the not-quite-so-big Al did not have much of a script to work with. Their manager put it another way. "If you have a big cannon, you need people to put the ammunition in."
Ruud Gullit himself needed little priming to do some blasting of his own. He did his shooting straight from the lip when mention was made of the shareholder who questioned his "semi-detached" style of management at the club's annual meeting on Monday, and prompted the premature ending of his planned pre-Christmas break in Amsterdam. "Kevin Keegan lives here in the North-east and works in London," Gullit said. "Bryan Robson lives in Manchester and works in Middlesbrough. Nobody mentions this. I ask myself: why have a go at me? I ask myself: why is there a difference?
"Brian Kidd always prepared the team at Manchester United. Alex Ferguson never took the training, as far as I know. I do the training here. And I prepare the team. I have given you very clear examples of other coaches. I have to ask the question: why have a go at me? I don't know the shareholder who asked the question. I have not seen him at the training ground."
Sadly for Gullit, and for Newcastle, there was no Ibrahim Ba at St James' yesterday, the Milan winger having failed to negotiate a midweek medical examination. The Newcastle manager did have the apparent luxury of pitting his new strikeforce against a makeshift Leeds defence. With Lucas Radebe, Robert Molenaar and Martin Hiden all on the injured list, the teenaged Jonathan Woodgate and the hitherto out-of-favour David Wetherall joined forces to face Shearer and Ferguson. And they did not have long to wait to face their first threat.
Less than 15 seconds were on the clock when Laurent Charvet hoisted a long ball and Ferguson headed on for Shearer. Before the England captain could gain possession, though, Woodgate dealt assuredly with the potential danger, clearing the ball to safety. It was a good start by the 18-year- old and for quarter-of-an-hour he and the veteran Wetherall succeeded in shackling the Newcastle danger men. They did so to such good effect that Ferguson drifted out to the left-wing and back to the half-way line. From there, however, the towering target man unlocked the Leeds defence, lofting the ball through to Shearer, who managed to elude Woodgate but steered his low shot wide of the right post.
It was left to a graduate of the Institute of Sport in Newcastle - the New South Wales Institute of Sport, that is - to fire the first warning shot for Leeds. Kewell's long-range effort was never going to beat Shay Given, but the young Australian had better luck eight minutes before half- time. His break from deep had the Newcastle defence on the back foot and when the ball came back to him, via Bruno Ribeiro and Hasselbaink, Kewell turned and threaded a right-foot shot through a forest of legs from 12 yards out.
Half-time arrived with Shearer and Ferguson still awaiting a cross from the wings. It took 53 minutes, in fact, for Newcastle's appointed wide- boys, George Georgiadis on the right and Stephen Glass on the left, to supply the target men with aerial ammunition. The drought ended with more of a chip than a cross, Georgiadis teeing up Shearer for a header that gave Ferguson a half-chance on the half-volley. Nigel Martyn saved comfortably enough but a minute later the Cornish custodian was pushed to palm a Glass volley round his right-hand post.
By way of contrast, the low shot Kewell dispatched at the other end just beyond the hour mark did not look strong enough to threaten anything, but Given allowed the ball to elude his grasp and Bowyer tapped in from close range. Newcastle twice came close in the dying minutes, but they were beaten again in injury time. Hasselbaink wrong- footed Steve Howey and slid a low drive past Given's grasp.Reuse content