Newcastle United's supporters may ponder the gradual yet encouraging transformation of Aston Villa and wonder, perhaps wistfully, about what might have been.
In the not so distant past it was the Magpies' long-suffering fans who were being enticed by the prospect of Martin O'Neill, new American owners and the cash injection necessary to rejuvenate a talented squad lacking strength in depth. This result, given late gloss by the substitute Antoine Sibierski's 90th-minute goal, suggests Newcastle can prosper without wholesale change in their quest for success but, even in defeat, Villa appear better placed to make long-term progress.
In Ashley Young and John Carew, a strikeforce worth more than £14m, O'Neill has fashioned a forward line which fuses raw pace with power and, once the two gel, expect the goals to flow. Young opened his account with confidence midway through the first half and his partner could have had a hat-trick were it not for the woodwork, Newcastle goalkeeper Steve Harper's glovework and a controversial decision to disallow a goal. If United deserved their win then neither of Villa's impressive debutants deserved to taste defeat.
"Their partnership bodes well for us but I wasn't best pleased with the goal which wasn't given," said O'Neill, after the referee Howard Webb had penalised Carew for a perceived foul on Sibierski. "It was a big moment in the game and it was blatantly obvious that it was a goal. If anything it was the other way around. But I was very encouraged by the performances of John and Ashley and the two were a threat all night long."
James Milner scored his third goal in as many games within five minutes of kick-off, a thrilling drive brought the home crowd to its feet. Two minutes later Kieron Dyer was unchallenged as he headed Milner's cross beyond the Aston Villa goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen, and O'Neill's team suddenly appeared unlikely to improve upon their record of five points from a possible 33 prior to the match last night. When Newcastle's captain, Scott Parker, struck the crossbar it seemed a matter of when, rather than if, United would increase their lead.
However, a period of typically unconvincing defending from the hesitant Magpies allowed Villa to reduce the deficit through Young, and Carew saw a fierce header strike Harper's upright two minutes before the interval.
Had Harper, again deputising for the injured Shay Given, not pulled off a dramatic reaction save from Carew within a minute of the restart it is likely that O'Neill's players would have gone on to secure maximum points. "From the moment they scored their second goal we were in charge of the game," added O'Neill, who concluded a deal for the Celtic midfielder Shaun Maloney late last night.
The Newcastle manager Glenn Roeder was a relieved man and admitted: "Not for the first time this season we conceded a rotten goal and the momentum swung in their favour. After that we survived and that's all we could do."
Goals: Milner 5 (1-0); Dyer 7 (2-0); Young 25 (2-1); Sibierski 90 (3-1).
Newcastle (4-4-2): Harper; Carr, Taylor, Bramble, Huntington; Milner, Butt (Sibierski, 33), Parker, Duff; Dyer, Martins. Substitutes not used: Srnicek, Edgar, O'Brien, Carroll.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; Bardsley, Mellberg, Cahill, Bouma (Angel, 85); McCann, Petrov, Barry, Agbonlahor; Carew (Berger, 69), Young. Substitutes not used: Taylor, Davis, Hughes.
Referee: H Webb (S Yorkshire).
Man of the match: John Carew.