There are some aspects of life at Newcastle United which Shay Given is ready to give up, including his habit of running out five minutes early for the second half to put in some extra practice. He hardly seems to need it. Though a busy afternoon against the League's poorest-performing side is hardly what Mark Hughes had in mind for his newest acquisition, how Newcastle put themselves in a position to sell him for £6 million was even more of a mystery by last night.
"It's all a bit strange but I'm delighted to start with a victory," the Irishman said after his four fine saves had helped City to cement their top 10 position and consign Middlesbrough to 13 League games without a win – a run now worse than the one which saw Paul Ince out of the door at Blackburn but which left Gareth Southgate maintaining his usual admirable composure as questions mount about his future. "No chance," was Southgate's response when asked if he might contemplate leaving the Teesside salvage job to someone else.
Hughes knows how Southgate feels but Given's display, added to Craig Bellamy's second goal in three games for City, vindicates the City man-ager's belief that proven Premier League players, not marquee signings, were what the club most needed."It [shows] the value of getting guys who have experience of the Premier League. As a consequence they can come to your club and hit the ground running," Hughes said.
Given's arrival seemed more curious than Bellamy's, given City's lack of a striker and their possession of a perfectly serviceable goalkeeper in Joe Hart. But while the four one-on-one saves Given made from the Brazilian Afonso Alves are just the type Hart regularly accomplished, the 32-year-old Given also brought an immediate sense of calm to a City defence which yesterday had an average age of 23.
"It's no detriment to Joe, he has helped us immensely," Hughes said. "But whatever Shay was asked to deal with today he dealt with, without theatre. I would argue all day long as to who's best in those situations. He was a calming influence with theback four."
The first of Given's saves was the finest, the £6m man instinctively raising a right hand to beat the ball away after Adam Johnson had burst into the area and found Alves unmarked. Given was momentarily deceived by the swerve of Alves's next effort, but adjusted his position in time to beat it out with his left hand. His right foot did the job when the Brazilian broke into the box again, and he palmed away a fourth effort after the break.
Brad Jones is at the other end of football's economic spectrum, just one more of the young players in whom Southgate is investing his faith, and though the City goalkeeper'sSky man-of-the-match award pro-vided a satisfying television story, the young Australian's saves were better. He crucially beat Bellamy in a chase to a penalty-box ball with the game three minutes old, then palmed a fierce shot from the Welshman wide, double-handed.
Stephen Ireland, again City's main creative force, went closer, ending a move he began by unleashing a diving header from a Wayne Bridge cross against the bar. But Bellamy,who demonstrated his usual, self- appointed, role as noisy leader by leaving the pitch in a heated argument with Emanuel Pogatetz at the end, broke Boro on 51 minutes. Taking a ball from Nigel de Jong, he capitalised on a yard of space Pogatetz allowed him, cutting inside the Boro captain to dispatch a shot that travelled between Robert Huth's legs and way beyond Jones's reach.
Boro's defence was durable enough, though the threat of an equaliser never materialised. "When a team is having a bad run very often you find that the injury room is full and it's not like that," Southgate said. "At some point it will turn, and we realise we need that quickly." Southgate takes heart from the tightness of the table, though it is currently hard to see where the five wins he feels he needs are coming from. City, who have asked the FA to reconsider their violent conduct charge after Shaun Wright-Phillips's kick at Rory Delap at Stoke, seem destined for a different realm.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Man of the match: Jones
Match rating: 6/10