NEWCASTLE United found redemption at the most unlikely of football cathedrals yesterday. Old Trafford, home to the team that twice denied them the League and which reserves its bitterest venom for their hero, saw the greatest outpouring of Geordie joy since the "Ha-way 5-0" victory over Manchester United at St James' Park 18 months ago.
That win proved illusory, yesterday's, over a brave but limited Sheffield United side, was more fruitful. It secured Newcastle their first FA Cup final since 1974 and their 12th in all. They will meet Arsenal, on 16 May, seeking their seventh success in the competition and their first since 1955. Assuming Arsenal finish in the Premiership's top two it also earns them a place in next year's European Cup-Winners' Cup.
Yesterday's victory will go some way to restoring the club's relationship with their fans, though they will have to be careful to avoid charges of exploitation in the run-up to Wembley. It will certainly ease the discontent about the manager, Kenny Dalglish, whose team, though far from fluent, were notably more adventurous than in recent weeks.
One relationship which does not need healing, but was yesterday celebrated is that of Alan Shearer and the Toon Army. The Newcastle No 9 scored the only goal of a lively match. It was his fifth goal of the competition and he will now go forward to his first FA Cup final.
The goal, on the hour, climaxed a spell of overwhelming Newcastle pressure. For 10 minutes, Sheffield, leg-weary in the heavy conditions, could not get the ball out of their half as Newcastle used their superior passing ability to keep them chasing. Eventually, John Barnes swung in a cross from the left and Shearer rose at the far post, Alan Kelly beat out his header but Shearer followed up to joyously thrash the ball into the net.
Sheffield, who had equalised in the dying minutes of their semi-final replay with Coventry, never gave up and both Wayne Quinn, brilliantly denied by Shay Given, and Gareth Taylor might have snatched an equaliser. It was not to be, however, and Newcastle were the United to exult.
Sir John Hall, always more aware of the Newcastle public than Douglas, his discredited son and brief successor as chairman, was quick to express his delight and praise the fans. "The priority is to stay in the Premier League but today we can savour the moment," he said. "We'll go back up the motorway and have a few ales. The supporters were magnificent - just as they were at Wimbledon in midweek."
Understandably, Sir John could not resist a message of support for Douglas, and Freddie Shepherd, the other ousted director. "Give them some credit," he said. "They are the architects of this."
Dalglish was equally generous paying tribute to the fans - "they deserve better than some of the stuff we've been serving up and a day out at Wembley is not a bad reward" - and Shepherd and Hall. There was also a rare admission of error when he added of Shearer: "We may have brought him back too quickly, but he's been very prolific in the Cup."
United, through Graham Stuart, had the first shot, but the Premiership side dominated the early action with their Nationwide League opponents hitting long balls rather than building attacks. Gary Speed headed just over from Nikolaos Dabizas' eighth-minute cross before Andreas Andersson, running on to Shearer's flick, bundled the ball past Kelly only for Lee Sandford to clear off the line.
Sheffield responded with Quinn, who had earlier tested Given from 25 yards, capitalising on a poor clearance from Dabizas to find Marcelo whose header looped just over.
Sheffield now had parity of possession but Newcastle still made the best chances with Andersson's running a threat if not his finishing. After Speed had headed against the post on 23 minutes, Andersson again opened up Sheffield. Kelly parried his shot, but Roger Nilsen completely miskicked his clearance and turned in horror to see the ball had run to Shearer, but somehow he blocked his shot.
Four minutes later Andersson again got the ball past Kelly only for Nilsen to clear as it rolled towards goal. Sheffield briefly recaptured the initiative at the start of the second period with Quinn forcing a good save from Given and Pearce blocking a Stuart shot but then Newcastle briefly stepped up the quality and, as at Villa Park, class told.
Goals: Shearer (60) 1-0.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Barton, Dabizas, Albert, Pearce; Gillespie, Batty, Barnes, Speed; Andersson (Ketsbaia, 72), Shearer. Substitutes not used: Hislop (gk), Rush, Tomasson, Hughes.
Sheffield United (4-4-2): Kelly; Borbokis, Holdsworth, Sandford, Nilsen; Stuart, Ford, Marker (Dellas, 72), Quinn; Marcelo (Taylor, 63) Saunders (Katchouro, 74). Substitutes not used: Short, Tracey (gk).
Referee: G Poll (Tring).
Bookings: Sheffield United: Holdsworth, Sandford, Marker, Borbokis.
Man of the match: Batty.