Hope but little charity for Robson FA Premiership: Newcastle fall to Leboeuf penalty as Chelsea battle to keep in touch with champions

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The Independent Football

THERE WAS warm applause for a grand old campaigner before the start, even from the Chelsea faithful. But it wasn't long before Bobby Robson was afforded a more typical London greeting for visiting managers. "Si' dahn, grandad!" bellowed the Blues following as old father Tyne stood to remonstrate with the fourth official over the rejected penalty claim that denied Newcastle a point.

THERE WAS warm applause for a grand old campaigner before the start, even from the Chelsea faithful. But it wasn't long before Bobby Robson was afforded a more typical London greeting for visiting managers. "Si' dahn, grandad!" bellowed the Blues following as old father Tyne stood to remonstrate with the fourth official over the rejected penalty claim that denied Newcastle a point.

That kind of treatment he could shrug off, on his return to English club football, with one of his whimsical smiles. What Robson certainly couldn't was the fact that with a dash of fortune, perhaps some charity from the referee, Graham Poll, his new team, of whom he knows so little, might actually have secured a point, maybe three, from a contest in which opportunities were at a premium.

Ultimately, this was decided by two penalty shouts, one awarded to Chelsea and converted by Franck Leboeuf, one claimed by Newcastle but rejected by Mr Poll.

"Chelsea are very close to the top, we are close to the bottom. There's a great difference on paper, but today it wasn't obvious on the pitch," Robson reflected. "This gives me a lot of encouragement and hope."

His disappointment with Mr Poll - wired for sound for the first time, but fortunately not on the receiving end of Robson's views after two of his most debatable decisions went against Newcastle - decreed that the new manager would soon be transformed from an Englishman abroad to one aghast. Robson said: "It was a good flick-on by Duncan Ferguson, Kieron Dyer read it really well and as he nicks it round the goalkeeper and is going to stick it in an empty net, he catches him. But when you're down you don't get these decisions.

"What would have happened if the referee had given the penalty? He would have had to dismiss the keeper, too. That would have made it interesting."

This defeat, which leaves them second bottom with one point, means that it has now been 14 Premiership games since Newcastle last won. Their despair has been worsened by the conceding of 18 goals in their six games this season. It was that which prompted Robson to deploy a sweeper in the shape of Nikos Dabizas. "It worked very well," Robson said. "They had more possession than us, but our keeper didn't have one shot to save in the first half."

Chelsea, in second place after this victory, have been in fine fettle, boasting five clean sheets from six games before yesterday, and with no fewer than seven goalscorers hitting the net. With Manchester United nine points clear of them at the start of play following their victory at Liverpool, albeit with Chelsea three games in arrears, Vialli's men knew they could not afford a slip, even at this early stage. Before the game, Robson was pensive, head down as his players warmed up. If he'd been clad in a red uniform, you might have expected some official to have shown him to the Chelsea Pensioners' section in the directors' box.

But it was not the blue murder many suggested it would be. Indeed, there was much for Robson to admire in the team bequeathed him by Ruud Gullit, ironically the same man whose legacy to Chelsea was the admirable Gianluca Vialli.

Although Chelsea finished with the kind of attacking verve that has made them such a fearsome force throughout the Premiership, Gianfranco Zola being foiled by the excellent goalkeeper Tommy Wright before lashing another chance into the side-netting, Newcastle's defence overall yielded the diminutive Italian and the disappointing Chris Sutton very few openings. It was only when Nolberto Solano departed late on that Zola and Tore Andre Flo, substitute for Sutton, began to advance with more purpose.

Chelsea secured what proved to be the winner in the 37th minute, just when it appeared that Robson's men had Chelsea's measure.

Gary Speed appeared to hold back the defender Celestine Babayaro as Zola swept a free-kick into the area, and Mr Poll had no doubts of the illegality of the act; Dabizas did, though, and he was cautioned for voicing his objections, a daft reaction having been dismissed for a verbal onslaught on an official in his last game at Old Trafford. Leboeuf duly dispatched his kick to Wright's left.

Newcastle should have restored equilibrium almost immediately. Duncan Ferguson, shorts hanging round his knees, had been a constant irritant to the Chelsea rearguard. When Rob Lee swung over a David Beckham-like free-kick, the Scot powered a header towards Ed de Goey's right, only for the Dutchman to deflect the ball wide.

That it was not be the visitors' day was confirmed just after the hour. Dyer, who had troubled the Chelsea rearguard throughout, tumbled in the area under the challenge of De Goey. Contact was minimal and it could have gone either way, but Mr Poll waved play on. Harried by both Alan Shearer and Dyer, he booked the younger man. Robson, off the bench, poured his scorn over the fourth official, who remained unmoved. Adverse decisions, even when you've been around for 45 years as a player and manager, just don't get any easier.

But at least for Robson there is something to build on. His defence looked secure, and midfield productive; the huge question is whether Shearer and Ferguson are going to combine into a profitable unit up front.

The England captain displayed as little in front of goal as he did on Wednesday for England, but Robson maintained: "For 10 years he has been a national hero. Now he's getting some criticism. There's little things about Alan's game which aren't quite working. But he will fight through it and I will help him." You can only believe him.

It had been a touch over 20 years since Bobby Robson last stood on the Stamford Bridge touchline as an English club manager, his club Ipswich defeating the then relegation-haunted Blues 3-2. Chelsea and Newcastle have both undergone considerable highs and lows since then. The manager's presence remains undiminished.

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