As Newcastle subsided tamely to another defeat, Villa Park's massive Holte End chortled: "Keegan, Keegan, what's the score?" The supposed saviour must be wondering. Even if he was not expecting quite so much from the brochure this time, the reality is proving even grimmer than feared. The joke doing the rounds yesterday was that Keegan, entertaining as ever, is now playing 3-3-4: the number of goals conceded in the three away games since he arrived.
Nigel Pearson, who had overseen the 6-0 beating by Manchester United in the previous one, has now resigned from a top-heavy coaching staff and a replacement, if there is to be one, needs to be carefully selected.
Under the previous Keegan regime, Mark Lawrenson was brought in as a defensive coach. On this evidence, he had better bring Alan Hansen and Lee Dixon with him, and leave Alan Shearer on the Match of the Day couch. Newcastle's back four were shocking and gave the team no chance of capitalising on Michael Owen's early goal, his second in as many games. John Carew took gleeful advantage, claiming Villa's first hat-trick on the ground for 13 years after Martin O'Neill made two half-time substitutions.
"We said at half-time that we had a platform to build on," Keegan said. "You look at how the players respond and that's the disappointing part. We're fragile, that's the word I'd use. We need to get a club back, the spirit and togetherness. We've got enough to be a Premiership club next season but we've got to get to 40 points. There are tough games coming up." Indeed, United, Blackburn and Liverpool are next. But avoiding relegation was not quite all that the Geordie nation had in mind when the Messiah arrived last month.
Although Cacapa's wild miskick in the penalty area was an early indication of the panic to come in the visiting defence, Newcastle went ahead with their first attack. Damien Duff's corner fell nicely for James Milner to cross onto Owen's head. For a while Villa were the worse of two disjointed teams but after Joey Barton sent a shot straight at Scott Carson, their goal remained unthreatened almost until the end.
Before half-time, Barton escaped with seemingly pushing Shaun Maloney in the face (pictured above) and then handling Gareth Barry's drive, and Carew's header when unmarked was turned aside by Shay Given. Even so, there was a smattering of boos as the home side left the pitch at half-time, returning with Olof Mellberg and Stiliyan Petrov replaced by Craig Gardner and Marlon Harewood. Harewood has won few admirers since moving from West Ham but Carew said later: "He gave us an extra lift with his power and enthusiasm."
There was certainly more robust support for Carew as Maloney dropped into midfield, from where, three minutes into the half, he supplied Wilfred Bouma. The sturdy Dutch left-back is one of those players whose appearance anywhere in the opposing half brings shouts of "shoot!" In 75 previous games he had never done so successfully but this was to be the day. From 20 yards he let fly, the ball deflecting off Habib Beye and past Given, who slipped as he dived, injuring a groin and having to be replaced by Steve Harper. Three minutes later, Ashley Young curled over one of his tantalising crosses that Carew imaginatively met with the back of his head, looping the ball just inside the far post.
Newcastle were falling apart and the game was transformed. Gardner's two fine shots in a minute brought equally good saves from Harper but only at the expense of corners, the second of which led to a spell of pinball, no decisive clearances and Carew's second goal. His third was a penalty after a ridiculous handling offence by Stephen Carr, a right-back playing on the left who had looked suitably uncomfortable all afternoon.