Cheltenham Town 0 Newcastle United 2: Chopra helps save Souness from chop

Manager off the hook as Robins rue lack of luck
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The Independent Online

Be fair, he deserved a break, if not necessarily two in as many minutes. Cheltenham Town's misfortune was that the gods chose the biggest day in their 117-year history to smile on Graeme Souness at last. Two scruffy goals at that psychologically critical time just before the interval got Newcastle's manager off the hook for another week without winning over their unusually subdued followers, who would have been looking at a highly uncomfortable last quarter of an hour if the home side's lanky striker Kayode Odejayi had not miscued when faced with an open goal.

Until the cruel double blow inflicted by Michael Chopra and Scott Parker, Odejayi's pace had offered genuine hope of headlines about a Cup "Kayo" for Souness, who was as generous in victory to his comically inept central defenders as he was to John Ward's League Two play-off contenders. "It was difficult for defenders to judge the bounce of the ball on that pitch with a bit of frost and a swirling wind," he said. "We always knew this would be a very tricky tie. That's the FA Cup. All credit to Cheltenham, who must be very pleased with themselves."

They were, justifiably so, though the good folk of the spa town inevitably went home mulling over what might have happened had their team gone to the dressing room at half-time on the level terms they deserved. "It was a crazy five minutes," said Ward. "Odejayi gave them problems throughout but you have to be calm when you get into good positions. He said it took a bobble just as he was about to shoot. But the occasion's been fantastic for the whole town."

The Robins had that town's sporting stage to themselves once the day's horse racing up the road was called off. The Whaddon Road pitch had been kept under cover and from the stands did not look sufficiently disconcerting to excuse the performances of the £13m partnership of Alain Boumsong and Titus Bramble in the middle of Newcastle's back four. The Frenchman was regularly outpaced by Odejayi, a £5,000 acquisition from Forest Green, and on one embarrassing occasion Bramble, under no pressure, hoofed a presumed pass right over one of the ground's three new stands.

In Lee Clark and Scott Parker, the Premiership side should have had just the busy, combative little midfield hustlers for a day like this, but with Parker not having played for a month, they were unable to subdue Cheltenham's impressive captain, John Finnigan. There was consequently little service to Alan Shearer, who had scored his 200th goal, equalling Jackie Milburn's club record, in an undistinguished third-round victory at home to Mansfield Town, but remains one short of a piece of history.

Shearer's glancing header straight at the goalkeeper after 24 minutes was Newcastle's first threatening attempt. In the meantime, the Cotswolds were alive to the sound of a penalty shout against Boumsong, and roars of frustration as Odejayi's low cross eluded every foot, and Finnigan headed over the bar.

Odejayi veered away from Boumsong, only for Peter Ramage to beat Steve Guinan to the ball. Then in the space of two minutes the game turned. Celestine Babayaro found himself on the end of Nolberto Solano's header to force a parry from the goalkeeper Shane Higgs. With the home defenders momentarily disorientated, Michael Owen's deputy, Chopra, headed in. Newcastle would have settled for that at the interval, but there was more. In the next attack, Peter Ramage crossed on the overlap and the right-back Jerry Gill could do no more than sweep the ball against Parker, from whom it took a ricochet into the net.

As the visitors settled for a 4-5-1 formation in the final quarter, confirmation that Souness' luck had changed for the better came with 15 minutes left. Odejayi went clear of the labouring defence and past Shay Given, only to hit his shot wide. The Newcastle manager might even have allowed himself a smile as the team bus headed for the airport past a Chinese restaurant named Chop Suey.