FOOTBALL: Shearer escapes the jam jar

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Derby County 0 Newcastle United 1

For all but a few fateful seconds, Paul McGrath rolled back the years to blot out Alan Shearer. When shadowing Newcastle's pounds 15m man, alas, a partial eclipse is seldom sufficient.

At nearly 37, with his wild days behind him, Derby's veteran debutant was the chief rival to Peter Beardsley, 35, for the accolade of man of the match. But with time ebbing away, Shearer slipped his marker after a free-kick. A fierce angled drive left him, to adapt Patrick Moore's terminology, over the moon.

McGrath, he of the immaculate interception and the nonagenarian knees, arrived at the Baseball Ground from Aston Villa last week. He felt he needed first-team football in order to fulfil his ambition of bowing out at the next World Cup finals. Watched by the Republic of Ireland manager, Mick McCarthy, he obscured Shearer to the point where the England captain looked a fractious mediocrity.

A solitary lapse, however, was all Shearer needed to earn Newcastle a fourth successive away win, all by a single goal. Kevin Keegan was inspired to drool about defensive durability, which was rather like Mr Mawhinney defecting to Labour. The chant of "Boring, boring Newcastle" cannot be far behind.

The issue now is whether they can stay in front, as they did from August to March last season, or whether they will once more succumb to the pressure of being pursued.

"We can't say we're not used to it," Keegan said. "Please God, we get in the same position this year. We look more resilient. No one's calling us entertainers anymore - we're more like grinders now. We're sticking the odd chance away and defending well.

Which you (the press) won't want to write because you like saying how badly we defend."

While such asides hint at the scars left by Newcastle's implosion last spring, Keegan has obviously heeded some of the lessons. His purist intransigence, once exemplified by an insistence on two wingers, has given way to pragmatism. David Ginola was dropped at Derby; Keith Gillespie could well follow after a dire display.

Philippe Albert's discipline was also revealing. As recently as the Charity Shield, he was charging recklessly forward. Apart from distracting Derby at the decisive set-piece, the Belgian hardly advanced any further beyond the half-way line than Scotland in Estonia.

Even so, Newcastle scarcely showed the kind of form to frighten Manchester United or Liverpool. Robert Lee has still to rekindle the fire of last autumn, and Les Ferdinand seemed short of confidence. Beardsley was the true Tyne and motion man, though it may be unwise, remembering how he faded during the run-in, for Keegan to count on him sustaining his influence through another arduous winter.

Aljosa Asanovic was behind Derby's better moments, which matched Newcastle's in all but the crucial aspect. The best was a drive by Christian Dailly which Pavel Srnicek saved brilliantly soon after half-time. Yet despite a furious work-rate, their wing-backs rarely threatened and the strikers failed to drag Darren Peacock and Albert out of position.

The same charge could not be levelled at Shearer and Ferdinand, whose tireless foraging masked the absence of any genuine partnership. Shearer was fortunate that Mr Bodenham twice missed him clapping sarcastically and he overlooked one outburst of definitive dissent. At the ground where Keegan had three men sent off when Newcastle stood on the brink of the former Third Division, he could have suffered fresh indignity.

The Derby crowd crowed, much as they did on that Easter Monday four years ago, for McGrath appeared to have Shearer trapped like a wasp in a jam jar. But as Poland discovered, give him an inch and he will take a goal.

Goal: Shearer (76) 0-1.

Derby County (3-5-2): Hoult; Rowett, McGrath, Stimac; Laursen (Flynn, 83), Dailly, Asanovic, D Powell, C Powell (Simpson, 88); Ward, Sturridge (Gabbiadini, 70). Substitutes not used: Carsley, Carbon.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Watson, Peacock, Albert, Beresford; Gillespie, Batty, Beardsley, Lee; Shearer, Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Clark, Elliott, Ginola, Kitson, Hislop (gk).

Referee: M Bodenham (East Looe, Cornwall).

Bookings: Derby: C Powell. Newcastle: Watson.

Man of the match: Beardsley.

Attendance: 18,092.