Football: Shearer's double lifts Newcastle

Newcastle United 3 Leeds United 0
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The Independent Online
St James' Park remained smothered by a blanket of white yesterday, despite the efforts of the Newcastle ground staff. A happy hogmanay to George Graham clearly would have been watching his team of killjoys smother the life out of their hosts but Leeds, even with four centre-backs in their defensive blanket, failed to strangle Kevin Keegan's entertainers.

Graham's negativity was a limited success. Newcastle, after half an hour of sublime high-tempo push-and-run play, were reduced to nervous wrecks before their second goal, 13 minutes from time.

By the final whistle, though, the Toon Army were marching into the new year as they had the old: with hope of silverware in their hearts. And the 1,800 contingent from Leeds left for home with more fear than hope for 1997.

Last year may have been a nightmare for Newcastle but it was a vintage one for Alan Shearer and English football's man of 1996 was in fine first- footing form for his club. His 16th goal as a pounds 15m man was only five minutes in coming. His 17th was the vital one yesterday, though, as Newcastle strung together successive Premiership victories for the first time in three months.

Having started the year with five straight League wins and lost 11 in the year, as well as that 12-point lead last season, Tyneside will be wary of false dawns.

Keegan himself acknowledged: "We've got a hell of a job on our hands to win the League. We've already lost six games but we may be lucky. This could be the season when a team loses nine or 10 games and still wins the title."

Graham's priority yesterday was not losing goals. In addition to his customary three centre-backs, his efforts to stem Newcastle's attacking flow extended to deploying Lucas Radebe as Peter Beardsley's shadow.

The Newcastle captain would probably not be surprised to discover the South African at his 36th birthday party on the 18th of the month, so close was their acquaintance yesterday. Unfortunately for Graham, however, Radebe could not get close enough to his man in the fifth minute.

A left-wing corner was a blessed release for Beardsley even at that stage of the game and he made the most of it, floating the ball on to the head of Les Ferdinand, who nodded down for Shearer to score with a rifling volley.

Had Newcastle been confronted with a tottering defence like Tottenham's they might have delivered another seven goals. As it was, the white-shirted blanket started to take effect after Nigel Martyn parried a Beardsley snap-shot.

By half-time, Newcastle's hyperactive midfield battery looked in need of a recharge. Leeds did not threaten Shaka Hislop's goal until the 60th minute but in a seven-minute spell of probing which increasingly exposed Newcastle nerves Ian Rush could have matched his three-goal Premiership tally of 1996.

Newcastle's salvation arrived, paradoxically, in a 75th minute incident which deprived them of a penalty. It was in this fixture two years ago that Paul Danson was in the act of sending off Steve Watson for a second bookable offence until Beardsley pointed out that Steve Howey, and not the young right-back, had already received a yellow card. And it seemed the Leicester official was mistaken again yesterday when he ignored his flagging assistant after Martyn brought Shearer crashing down.

He succeeded in rousing Newcastle's passion sufficiently for Shearer to bag his second goal with a deflected shot two minutes later - and for Ferdinand to turn in Robert Lee's left-wing cross with three minutes to go.

Leeds were left without a win, and just a solitary goal, in six Premiership games. "Yes, I am anxious," Graham said, his new year blanket having provided no comfort.

Newcastle United (4-3-1-2): Hislop; Watson, Peacock, Albert, Beresford; Lee, Batty, Clark; Beardsley; Shearer, Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Elliott, Kitson, Gillespie, Barton, Srnicek (gk).

Leeds United (3-1-4-2): Martyn; Palmer, Wetherall, Beesley; Radebe; Kelly (Gray, 63), Jackson, Bowyer, Dorigo; Rush (Wallace, 75), Deane. Substitutes not used: Harte, Ford, Beeney (gk).

Referee: P Danson (Leicester).