Football: Shearer heightens Gregory's stress

Newcastle United 2 Shearer 4, Ketsbaia 27 Aston Villa 1 Merson 61 Half-time: 2-0 Attendance: 36,776; Villa continue slide from Premiership primacy as their manager feels the strain of Collymore complications
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The Independent Online
A CLUB in crisis? If there was one at St James' Park yesterday it was John Gregory's Home for Distressed Gentlefolk as their manager, who has achieved so much, so swiftly, watched his side eclipsed by a rampant Newcastle, in which Alan Shearer was at his strutting, assured best and leading by example, as well as scoring his first Premiership goal since the end of September. It was an afternoon's reward which was scarcely credit for either his endeavours or the chances crafted by his team-mates, especially the young Scot Stephen Glass.

Afterwards, while Ruud Gullit was generosity itself where Shearer was concerned, Gregory was still clearly miffed about Villa's striking counterpart "Stanley" - as the manager prefers to allude to him - Collymore, who instead of assisting Villa's vain efforts yesterday, had just spent his first night in the clinic in Roehampton, where Paul Gascoigne has also been undergoing treatment. "He will remain there until next Friday, so he won't be playing next week," Gregory said. "It's all had an effect on me. It's left me tired and drained. It's something I could have done without. I don't think it's affected the players, at least I hope not, but I could have done with him in the squad today."

You could only have sympathy with Gregory. These days Villa's squad are starting to read like something out of a social worker's dossier. The England striker Dion Dublin is that rarity these days, absent through something as mundane as "a groin", when Stan Collymore (under a stress counsellor) can claim a far more fashionable reason for his absence. Paul Merson (in rehab) actually continues to make it on to the team sheet and managed an exquisitely executed drive which brought Villa back into the game after the break, although he is far from performing at his full potential. But what next? Sorry, John Smith can't make it today (row with missus)?

Contrast Gregory's demeanour with Ruud Gullit, who knows all about Dutch courage, and who has required it in good measure to stand in front of that all-demanding St James' crowd when results are going against him, and with his reign riven with reports of dissent in the camp. At the final whistle, the manager gave an almost imperceptible gesture, a clench of the fist and a glance to the heavens, and said "thank you" to his god, but mostly to a man named Shearer.

At the end, the pair ruffled each other's hair as they passed, a neat symbol of understanding between them, even though it may take more than this to heal the wounds. For the moment, though, Gullit was content to give credit where it was due. "I was very pleased with Alan Shearer's performance," he said. "There was a lot of pressure on his back, but he put that aside and proved that he is a great captain."

With more proficient finishing Gullit's side could have thoroughly embarrassed Aston Villa, Premiership pace-setters for so much of the season. It was no way to treat a former favourite, Steve Watson, on his first return to St James' Park following the versatile player's pounds 3.5m transfer south. He was given a warm reception by the home crowd but a tortuous one by the United forwards, Shearer and Temuri Ketsbaia.

Gregory's men had been in urgent need of a fillip to bolster their confidence and confirm their Premiership title credentials. But within four minutes Shearer informed them that Newcastle were in no mood to be their springboard when he struck with a vengeance, heading home powerfully at the far post from Glass's cross. "It was typical of Shearer," lamented Gregory. "It was his only chance in the game." In truth, that was actually a somewhat myopic perspective, because the England man headed wide and then on top of the net in the second half, both from Glass crosses.

After that early goal there was little respite for Villa, whose most dangerous player was their defender Alan Wright whose excellent crossing from the left almost brought reward when Joachim got his foot to the ball, only to turn it over the bar.

But, that apart, it was all Newcastle. All Shearer. The England captain had the ball in the net again 20 minutes after his goal, this time steering a header wide of goalkeeper Michael Oakes from Nolberto Solano's corner, but the effort was disallowed for pushing.

Two minutes later there could be no arguments when Glass seized on a Shearer pass which left Watson stranded, powered down the left and set up the Georgian Ketsbaia to convert an easy chance from close range.

Villa's cause appeared further diminished when defender Ugo Ehiogu was accidentally kicked in the head by Shearer and had to be replaced by Simon Grayson. Yet, almost surreptitiously, Villa forced their way back into a game which appeared beyond them. Ian Taylor who, along with Wright, had particularly impressed in the first half, made his presence tell in midfield, Joachim and Merson began to menace the home rearguard, and a re-formed visitors' defence, with Riccardo Scimeca brought back in place of Ehiogu, looked considerably more resolute.

Yet Merson's goal was to prove only an interruption in United's dominance. In fact, it turned out to be merely the prelude to a resurgence by Newcastle, for whom the substitute Andreas Andersson twice spurned chances to reflect Newcastle's superiority more accurately. By the end the visitors were hanging on, their only aim to avoid further damage.

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