Delight for United's disco diva as Brown closes the gap on Arsenal

Manchester United 2 - Newcastle United 1
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The Independent Football

"I will survive," declared Sir Alex Ferguson in his programme column yesterday, answering his critics like a melodramatic disco diva. A third consecutive defeat would have intensified the pressure on the Manchester United manager, yet despite falling behind to Newcastle United, Old Trafford's young hearts ran free to gain an overdue Premiership win through a wonder strike by Wayne Rooney and Wes Brown's first League goal.

"I will survive," declared Sir Alex Ferguson in his programme column yesterday, answering his critics like a melodramatic disco diva. A third consecutive defeat would have intensified the pressure on the Manchester United manager, yet despite falling behind to Newcastle United, Old Trafford's young hearts ran free to gain an overdue Premiership win through a wonder strike by Wayne Rooney and Wes Brown's first League goal.

A week after thumping Newcastle 4-1 to reach the FA Cup final, United gifted their under-strength opponents a first-half lead after Tim Howard side-footed a clearance straight to Shola Ameobi. Darren Ambrose, whose performance embodied the spirited improvement shown by Graeme Souness's side, took over possession and brushed aside Quinton Fortune and Brown before beating an embarrassed Howard.

Nothing seemed likely to trick United into scoring until 12 minutes into the second half. Peter Ramage, making his debut in Newcastle's defence, then headed the ball towards Rooney, lurking 25 yards out. Without letting it land, the 19-year-old swung his right boot at it, the ball tearing past Shay Given's outstretched hands in a blur reminiscent of Tony Yeboah's much-replayed winner for Leeds against Liverpool a decade earlier. It was, as Ferguson said, a "phenomenal" goal, all the more so considering that he revealed Rooney was carrying a "dead"leg.

The decisive goal was an altogether more prosaic affair, Brown beating the taller Ameobi to head in Ryan Giggs's corner with 17 minutes left. The central defender had never scored for United outside of European football, and it said much about the nature of their problems this season that it took Ferguson's team to the modest landmark of 50 Premiership goals this season, 15 behind Chelsea and 23 adrift of Arsenal.

United belatedly breathed life into their League campaign, the three points taking them to within one of Arsenal in the tussle to avoid pre-qualifying for the Champions' League. For Newcastle, a season once full of promise has disintegrated into a run of five defeats, although they did not go as meekly as they had done in the semi-final.

Souness made five changes from the side taken apart in Cardiff, but Kieron Dyer, while free from suspension, joined Nicky Butt among the walking wounded. None of which had deterred the Toon Army from travelling in numbers, their raucous defiance bringing some atmosphere to a stadium with an unmistakable end-of-season feel.

United were without Ruud van Nistelrooy, the Dutchman having hurt his left ankle in training. Alan Smith was initially asked to forage alone up front, with Rooney and Giggs deputed to break in support. Apart from a few isolated break-outs, Newcastle's strategy worked better than Souness could have hoped during the first half. The pivotal figure was Stephen Carr; nominally a full-back, the former Tottenham Hotspur man lent bite to midfield.

That said, Newcastle looked content to contain rather than having any ambition to win the match. Alan Shearer looked even lonelier than Smith in his role as spearhead, and when Ramage found himself breaking into open space down the United left midway through the first half, only James Milner was able to contest his low cross.

If United thought things could only improve after Ambrose's goal, they were to be sadly disabused. First, Gabriel Heinze was carried off and taken to hospital for X-rays on his right ankle after falling awkwardly in an aerial challenge with Ameobi. Then, three minutes from half-time, Smith was denied a penalty after being wrestled to the turf by Andy O'Brien in a manner that suggested the defender missed his vocation in rugby league.

Ferguson switched Fortune to left-back and introduced Cristiano Ronaldo, United switching to 4-4-2 after the interval. The change gave them better balance and fresh momentum. From the early stages of the second half, it was clear Rooney was under orders to operate nearer to Smith, which he would do to striking effect, even if his equaliser, like Ambrose's opener, had its origins in a defensive error.

Encouraged by only their second goal in eight and half hours of League combat, United began to press forward with greater conviction. As ever, Rooney was fired up, too much so during a late challenge on Milner and was cautioned.

Brown's collectors' item at last brought to life the home crowd, although Newcastle at least went down fighting. Milner sent a shot narrowly over, Ameobi another one barely a foot wide, but United, without coming anywhere near their best form, had done enough.

Goals: Ambrose (27) 0-1; Rooney (57) 1-1; Brown (73) 2-1.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Howard; P Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Heinze (Ronaldo, 38); Fletcher (Kleberson, 60), Keane (Silvestre, 76), Fortune, Giggs; Rooney; Smith. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), O'Shea.

Newcastle United (4-1-4-1): Given; Ramage (Robert, 82), Boumsong, O'Brien, Elliott; Carr; Ameobi, Ambrose, N'Zogbia, Milner; Shearer (Kluivert, 66). Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), McClen, Brittain.

Referee: N Barry (Lincolnshire).

Booked: Manchester United Rooney; Newcastle United Carr.

Man of the match: Rooney.

Attendance: 67,845.

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