Minute that shattered Newcastle

Newcastle United 0 - Aston Villa 3
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The Independent Football

If Alan Shearer was having no second thoughts yesterday about signing on for an extra season as a Newcastle player, he could have been excused for revising his long-term ambition to become the manager at St James' Park. It was bad enough for Graeme Souness that his team were heading for their first defeat in 13 matches, with a 3-0 deficit and with a man down, Steven Taylor having been red- carded for keeping out a Darius Vassell shot with his left hand.

But then a bad day at the office turned into a nightmare as Souness stood at pitch-side watching Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer knocking seven bells out of one another. The manager who was brought to Newcastle last August to knock the club's ill-disciplined young players into shape was seeing much of his good work being undone in a minute of mayhem and madness that left the crowd stunned in disbelief, and which left Newcastle with just eight players on the pitch for the last nine minutes.

It all kicked off when Bowyer made a run down the right wing and Dyer chose to ignore him, threading a pass inside instead. Bowyer made his displeasure known. An exchange of effing and blinding ensued and then the two players converged, 15 yards inside the Villa half, Bowyer appearing to throw the first punch in a scrap that ended with Stephen Carr and Gareth Barry pulling the team-mates apart. Both combatants saw red thereafter. Barry Knight, the referee, dismissed Dyer, then Bowyer, whose shirt was torn apart down the front. Both players face three-match bans for violent conduct, in addition to internal punishment.

The pair have long histories of ill-discipline, either on or off the pitch. Dyer had already been on a final warning from Souness, who accompanied him to a local police station last August after the England midfielder was captured urinating in an alley by CCTV cameras.

Taking the pith out of this latest situation will be a huge challenge for Souness, with home and away legs of a Uefa Cup quarter-final against Sporting Lisbon to play this week and next before the FA Cup semi-final in Cardiff. The Newcastle manager made a good start, though, hauling Bowyer and Dyer into the press room last night to offer their apologies.

As for Shearer, he had seen it all before, having been in the Blackburn team the night that David Batty and Graeme Le Saux came to blows in the midst of Rovers' 3-0 Champions' League defeat away to Spartak Moscow back in November 1995. That followed a crunching tackle as both players challenged for the ball, and neither was dismissed from the field - unlike the Charlton strikers Derek Hales and Mike Flanagan, who were sent off for fighting in an FA Cup tie against Maidstone in 1979.

Still, it was a thoroughly beguiling afternoon for Shearer, who had little chance to show his worth the day after putting his pen to a 12-month player-coach contract said to be worth £4m. The chants of acclaim for the Newcastle captain had barely died down when the first telling blow of the football match was struck, Juan Pablo Angel rifling Villa into a fifth-minute lead after Andy O'Brien failed to clear a Steve Davis cross from the right.

There was more than sufficient time for Newcastle to put the fizz back into Shearer's party. The old man himself showed the first sign of doing so, although his diving header, from a Jermaine Jenas cross, was saved comfortably by Thomas Sorensen. The younger guns had their chances too, Bowyer, Jenas and Dyer all firing blanks as Newcastle built up an attacking head of steam.

It did not last very long, though. The attentions of Olof Mellberg had Shearer dropping increasingly deeper in search of possession, and his colleagues enjoyed little more joy against a compact Villa side who grew in confidence and who threatened to increase their lead as half-time approached. Twice Barry was thwarted: first by a textbook block tackle by Bowyer, then by the foot of Shay Given's right post. The one-time England player also lofted a left-foot flick across the face of Given's goal.

In the absence of the injured Patrick Kluivert, Shearer again had Dyer as his striking accomplice, but he could prise little change from the vice-tight Villa defence - save from setting up a sitter that Jenas squandered just before half-time.

It might have been different had Knight granted Shearer a penalty when his header struck Jlloyd Samuel on the back of the hand two minutes into the second half. Then again, the Newcastle captain would have had to beat Sorensen from the spot at the Gallowgate End - something he failed to do last season and when the Dane kept goal for Sunderland at St James' five years ago.

Vilified for the goal he gifted Emile Heskey in the second-city derby a fortnight ago, Sorensen redeemed himself, tipping over Newcastle's one threatening effort of the second half, a Bowyer drive. When Barry converted from the penalty spot in the 73rd minute, after Taylor had handled a Darius Vassell shot on the goal-line, the game was up for Newcastle. Seven minutes later it was 3-0 to Villa, Barry burying another penalty after Carr had balked Vassell.

Then it was three off for Newcastle - Bowyer and Dyer following in Taylor's footsteps. For Souness and his Magpies, it was a day of red cards and even redder faces.