Bolton left with 'plucky team' title as Shearer rules roost

Newcastle United 3 Bolton Wanderers 2
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The Independent Football

Towards the end of Manchester United's stroll against Sunderland, Sir Alex Ferguson stuck up two fingers to tell his team Arsenal were drawing 1-1, although perhaps now he should take as much notice of the results from St James' Park as from Highbury.

The Manchester United manager will need to use both hands – in their last three matches Newcastle have scored or conceded 15 goals – but they remain title contenders even if the bookies by the Gallowgate End put them behind Leeds.

Asked if he was considering the possibilities of Newcastle winning the championship, Bobby Robson produced one of his own endearing turns of phrase. "If you count your chickens before they're hatched, they won't lay an egg," he said. "I still think the top six will lose a couple of games each before we are done."

This match was eminently loseable, especially given the nature of a Newcastle defence that has kept one clean sheet since Boxing Day. Bolton may not have won at St James' since 1959 and they may maintain their record of finishing every season in the top flight since 1979 with relegation, but they do not lack for spirit or sharpness in front of goal.

They are, however, entirely devoid of luck, perhaps the most precious commodity any team can possess. Neither Robson nor Sam Allardyce could remember a single instance of a goalkeeper conceding a free-kick for holding the ball beyond the statutory six seconds until David Elleray upheld Alan Shearer's appeal against Jussi Jaaskelainen four minutes after Bolton had taken the lead via an incisive piece of finishing from Ricardo Gardner.

When these teams met in Lancashire earlier in the season, Jaaskelainen's sending-off had been the catalyst for a wholesale Bolton collapse and, naturally, Shearer scored, driving his free-kick into the left-hand corner.

Allardyce conceded, and willingly at that, that his goalkeeper had held the ball for nine seconds but complained Shearer had not allowed him to kick it upfield. Nevertheless, Allardyce's frustration, which has been gnawing at him throughout Bolton's two-month slide from European contention to the relegation mêlée, was not reserved for Elleray alone.

Once Nicky Southall had driven Sylvain Distin's clearance into the roof of Shay Given's net with the kind of venom that suggested he had spent several seasons at Liverpool rather than Hartlepool, Bolton were again in control and again the advantage seeped away. They allowed Aaron Hughes to chase after a ball which appeared to be travelling out of play and then failed to close down Shearer, whose flying header Jaaskelainen could only palm into his own net.

Bolton massed bodies on their own 18-yard line, attempted to suck Newcastle in during an attritional second half and then counter-attack. But for a superb two-handed punched clearance by Given from Gardner, it might have paid off handsomely. Yet it was Hughes, the 22-year-old defender from Northern Ireland, whose second cross of the game left the strategy in ruins as Craig Bellamy pounced at the far post a dozen minutes from time.

"He is developing all the time, beginning to understand what a full-back is," said Robson of Hughes. "He now knows when to stay up, when to play offside, when to cover and when to overlap."

Bolton seem not to know when or how to win. It was 18 November when they last tasted victory in the Premiership, which put them within two points of Manchester United. Since then one club has amassed 30 points, the other six. If this trend cannot be reversed, they will inherit the mantle of 'plucky team that goes down fighting' they last wore four years ago.

"From a defensive point of view, we have conceded three goals and you cannot do that," Allardyce stated. The way that we get out of this position is by not conceding goals and looking for a bit of good fortune to nick us three points.

"We can't seem to play poorly and dig something out a game that we don't deserve and we can't seem to play well and earn ourselves a victory. The longer it goes on, the more players lose belief."

Goals: Gardner (19) 0-1; Shearer (23) 1-1; Southall (34) 1-2; Shearer (43) 2-2; Bellamy (78) 3-2.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given 7, Hughes 8, O'Brien 6, Dabizas 6, Distin 5, Solano 6, McClen 4 (Acuña, 81), Speed 5, Robert 5, Bellamy 6, Shearer 8. Substitutes not used: Elliott, Barnard, Ameobi, Harper (gk).

Bolton Wanderers (3-5-2): Jaaskelainen 6, Bergsson 5, Whitlow 7, Charlton 6, Barness 5, Nolan 5 (Pedersen, 81), Southall 6, Farrelly 5, Gardner 7, Bobic 4 (Holdsworth, 85), Ricketts 5 (Hansen, 88). Substitutes not used: Forchelet, Poole (gk).

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow) 6.

Booking: Bolton: Jaaskelainen.

Man of the match: Hughes.

Attendance: 52,094.