Football: Silent knight on the Tyne

Simon Turnbull says the pressure on Kevin Keegan to deliver is increasing
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The Independent Online
Five minutes from the end of Newcastle's Coca-Cola Cup tie against Oldham in October, a disgruntled member of the Toon Army leaned on the rail behind the Press box on his way to the exit. "That's rubbish, Newcastle," he bellowed. "Absolute rubbish!"

It was impossible not to laugh, and not simply because Newcastle were 1-0 up. It was, after all, just three days since the 5-0 thrashing of Manchester United - a scoreline Newcastle last achieved against their northern rivals back in 1929. If Kevin Keegan's men were playing rubbish, at least it was quality rubbish compared with the garbage days of six years ago, when they scored six goals at Tranmere and still managed to lose.

It has always been natural to reflect back to the time when Tyneside's black and white minstrels were a struggling second-class act to place the setbacks suffered by Kevin Keegan's new age Newcastle into context. Yet, as theyconfront a spot of mid-season turbulence for the third successive year, the perspective is shifting.

An off-night against Oldham so soon after the Lord Mayor's Show is one thing; one win in seven Premiership matches since then is another. Only in their Uefa Cup win against Ferencvaros have Newcastle recaptured the irresistible form that swept aside Manchester United. Not only that; in their last three league games, at home to Arsenal and away to Nottingham Forest and Coventry, they have scraped just a single point.

There are signs that the natives are getting restless, and not just disgruntled foot soldiers in the Toon Army. While confirming the club's intention for a Stock Exchange flotation and revealing plans to build a 55,000-seat stadium, Sir John Hall conceded that Newcastle "are under pressure to win something".

Keegan's decision to send the waiting media to Coventry after the 2- 1 defeat at Highfield Road on Tuesday suggested the pressure might be getting to him. The Newcastle manager certainly appreciates the urgent need to deposit some silverware, though the fact that Alex Ferguson also flouted regulations by failing to conduct a post-match press conference at Hillsborough dictates that his silent stance ought not to be singled out as especially significant. Keegan has been a reluctant post-match interviewee since the critical reaction to his outburst against Ferguson at Leeds in April. "We're asked far too quickly to confront the media and some of the questions are loaded," he complains in the club newspaper, United!

Keegan's most pressing concern is the question mark recent performances have raised about the trophy-winning ability of his team. The minimalist contributions by David Ginola and Keith Gillespie while the Magpies are clipped on their wings and caught short in midfield are a real cause for concern.

Three points at home to Liverpool tomorrow could put the sparkle back into Newcastle's season. Defeat, though, would leave them with 10 points to make up on Roy Evans' team - and the prospect of a win-or-bust trip to Monte Carlo in the spring.

Robbie Fowler, page 18