Football: Toon quickly out of tune

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Newcastle United 0

Charlton Athletic 0

Attendance: 36,719

ACCORDING TO Ladbrokes, it is 10 times more likely, at odds of 50-1, of intelligent alien life being discovered by the end of 1999 than of Charlton Athletic parading the Premiership trophy around a happy Valley in May. Yesterday, on the lush green terra firma of Tyneside, Alan Curbishley's little red men, 500-1 shots for the title, were not exactly out of this world as they took their one small step on to the big stage. Neither, however, were Newcastle.

The Addicks addicts in attendance were inspired enough to chant "We're gonna win the league," though the winning of a point to put on the Premiership board was a satisfactory enough first day achievement by Curbishley's team. They won it against the odds, too, playing for 65 minutes with 10 men after Richard Rufus was dismissed for striking Nikolaos Dabizas. It was otherwise an opening bout sadly lacking in punch - to the audible displeasure of the Toon Army.

His team having been booed off the pitch, it was not expecting too much for Kenny Dalglish to articulate "how disappointed" he was, as he was asked in the press room afterwards. The Newcastle manager told his questioner to "spit out your dummy and rephrase the question" and after the veteran journalist turned on him, roaring "I'm not having that," Dalglish was only marginally forthcoming. "We're disappointed that we didn't get three points, obviously," he said. "But we're level on points with Man United and we're one ahead of Chelsea. If we finish the season like that we'll be happy."

The prevailing mood was more mellow before kick-off, understandably so, given the untold joy Charlton's graduation brought to Tyneside in May. Still drunk on the schadenfreude 12 weeks after Sasa Ilic dived to decisively block Michael Gray's penalty at the Tunnel End, the Toon Army showed their appreciation with an ovation for the Charlton goalkeeper and even for Clive Mendonca, his status as a Sunderland fan overlooked in recognition of the three goals and the penalty he scored at Wembley.

Mendonca and his colleagues were doubtless gladdened by the sight of Perez warming up before kick-off but Dalglish chose to use Shay Given as his last line of defence, rather than the free-transfer acquisition who conceded four goals and seven penalties against Charlton as Sunderland's less than secure custodian in the First Division play-off final. Most of the early action, however, took place at the other end, directly below the Charlton supporters and their "Cheer up Peter Reid" banner.

With six minutes on the clock, Alan Shearer despatched a low drive that beat Ilic but was hacked clear on the line by Danny Mills. Then Dietmar Hamann, urged by the Toon Army to chance his right boot whenever he gained possession (the first time in history, someone suggested, that Englishmen have begged a German to shoot), responded to popular demand with a 20- yarder that almost scraped the top of Ilic's bar. Charlton, though, had concerns other than a repeat of the long-range screamer Hamann scored against Juventus last Monday night when Rufus crashed to the ground with Dabizas in the 25th minute.

The incident occurred in the heart of the Charlton penalty area. While Dermot Gallagher flashed his red card at Rufus, the Banbury official chose not to award a spot-kick. Newcastle had to settle for a one-man advantage and another corner kick, presumably because the ball had gone out of play before the clash, which left Newcastle's Greek defender tending a facial wound.

Dabizas made way for John Barnes at half-time but by then the contest had slipped into a soporific summer affair, stifled by the failure of either team to gain a measure of midfield control. Only in the last five minutes did it spark to life. First Given denied Steve Jones with a reflex save. Then Ilic soared to tip over an Alessandro Pistone drive - a save that may or may not have been appreciated, via satellite, by extra terrestrial followers of the glory game.