Amid snowflakes on Tyneside some of Newcastle United's relegation fever began to cool yesterday. Ten games in, at last Kevin Keegan has re-experienced that winning feeling. Mark Viduka and Michael Owen delivered the goals that expanded the distance between Newcastle and second-bottom Fulham to nine points, the gap to third-bottom Bolton to six. It is hard to foresee Newcastle dropping from that position. Thus, while it was a key day for Keegan, it was a major moment for the club. Four more points may be enough to keep Newcastle up and then they can start planning for the summer and next season.
The same cannot be said for Fulham whose seven-season stay in the top flight is in peril. Roy Hodgson had organised last Sunday's victory over Everton and that put some colour back in their cheeks, but Fulham were pale here and deserved the nothing they got. It means Newcastle have done the double over the Londoners this season, symmetry coming from the fact that the Geordies' last win was at Craven Cottage 10 days before Christmas. A lot of troubled water has flowed under Tyne bridges since, but locals could breathe easier last night. After Birmingham on Monday night, this was a fourth point from two games.
It was also a second goal in two games for Owen. The England striker missed a first-half sitter and had other chances before his 83rd-minute header but, playing in a withdrawn role, Owen was as influential as anyone on the pitch. Like Keegan's assessment of the Newcastle performance – "good, not fantastic," – Owen was not thrilling. But he played like a captain should and never hid, even after that 36th-minute fluff.
"Michael probably answered a few critics today, and there are plenty of them," Keegan said. "I think he led this team fantastically. We asked him to play in a different role. He's definitely in form; this idea that he is not as sharp as he was has been dispelled this week. His goal record for Newcastle must be near 50 per cent." The victory, Keegan said, "takes the pressure off. The players' attitude has been questioned, my ability as a manager has been questioned, it's just given everyone a boost. But there is still a lot of work to be done."
Keegan was also full of praise for Viduka. The Australian has taken his time to get back from injury but took only six minutes to show the value of his presence.
Fulham did not exactly hinder his progress when Viduka took a pass from Geremi on the edge of the box. Brede Hangeland stood a yard off, Owen dragged Aaron Hughes out of position and Viduka filled the hole with a firm shot low into the bottom corner. More home goals should have followed that but Kasey Keller made flying saves from Obafemi Martins and Owen, and Danny Murphy cleared a goalbound ricochet from Brian McBride off the Fulham line. "It should've been 2-0 or 3-0 at half-time," Keegan said.
But it was not and Newcastle were vulnerable to any sustained pressure Fulham could apply. There was also the memory of the last home game, against Blackburn, when Owen squandered chances and Newcastle eventually lost.
But Fulham – Jimmy Bullard aside – were too random in just about everything they did. The limp nature of their second-half display must have concerned Hodgson, though he took some consolation in Bolton's draw and Birmingham's defeat. "We've got to keep believing," he said.
That was what Owen did. The Blackburn game and the first-half miss would have preyed on less resilient minds but Owen, knitting the play in an old-fashioned No 10 way, then nipped in to seal the points with seven minutes to go. Owen's header from Geremi's free-kick was firmer than his first. Firmer is how Newcastle feel this morning.Reuse content