One of the many honours bestowed upon Steve Harmison following England's Ashes victory in 2005 was a seat in the directors' box at his beloved Newcastle United. However, just as the "Ashington Express" appears to have been catastrophically derailed since that famous triumph against Australia, the fast bowler's boyhood favourites have lurched from one crisis to the next during 18 months of painful transition.
A first League victory in 10 attempts for Glenn Roeder's team will hardly help Harmison's wayward action but news of this vital win will, at the very least, have lifted his fragile spirits Down Under. Had Newcastle failed to beat high-flying Portsmouth, it is difficult to imagine where the North-east's greater sporting crisis might have manifested itself - for now it is in Brisbane rather than on the banks of the Tyne.
Harmison knows a thing or two about speed and one of the fastest bowlers in world cricket would have appreciated the way United went about their business on a bitterly cold Tyneside afternoon. In pairing the Nigerian international forward Obafemi Martins with midfielder Kieron Dyer in attack, Roeder is relying on raw pace to unlock Premiership defences and pull clear of the division's bottom four.
On three occasions inside the opening 20 minutes the tactic almost worked, but a combination of keen anticipation on the part of the Portsmouth defender Linvoy Primus and double vision on behalf of the referee's assistant meant that Newcastle were unable to capitalise on their early dominance.
Martins, the £10m signing from Internazionale, was convinced that he had broken the deadlock after running on to Dyer's slide-rule pass and chipping the Portsmouth goalkeeper David James from the edge of the penalty area in the 17th minute. However, a late flag was incorrectly raised and with that offside decision a partnership which deserved better was denied its defining moment.
"I think Kieron and Oba will go on to forge a very good partnership," said Roeder after watching his substitute forward Antoine Sibierski, the antithesis of Dyer and Martins, score the winner in the 69th minute. "It's just a shame that a goal which should have stood wasn't given. Oba is so quick that the referee's assistant wasn't able to recognise that he had stayed onside."
Dyer is returning from a lengthy lay-off because of injury but the England international has only taken two League games to remind the national team manager Steve McClaren of his quality and class when fully fit. "Kieron is a player who is both pleasing on the eye, which is important for our supporters, and also extremely effective because he can carry the ball at pace from halfway to the edge of the area," Roeder added.
Had James not been in fantastic form, saving late on from Emre as well as Dyer, then Roeder would have been able to reflect on a far more convincing victory. James' manager, Harry Redknapp, remained upbeat, despite a disappointing away performance that prevented his side moving into third place, and summed up the perceived difference in expectation at two clubs encountering differing fortunes this season.
"We didn't play well and created next to nothing." he said. "But if, at the start of the season, I had said we would be in fourth and Newcastle would have been fourth bottom at the end of November then people would have said I was off my head. Kieron Dyer is a good player and he's very quick. So is Martins. They have real pace in attack."
Goal: Sibierski (69) 1-0.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Solano, S Taylor, Bramble, Ramage; Milner (Sibierski, h-t), Parker (Butt, 24), Emre, N'Zogbia (Luque, 90); Dyer, Martins. Substitutes not used: Srnicek (gk), Huntington.
Portsmouth (4-4-2): James; Pamarot, Primus, Campbell, Stefanovic (M Taylor, h-t); O'Neil, Davis, Mendes (Kranjcar, 71), Thompson; Benjani (Douala, 59), Kanu. Substitutes not used: Ashdown (gk), O'Brien.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Booked: Newcastle Bramble, Solano; Portsmouth Thompson, Stefanovic.
Man of the match: Emre.
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