In a raucous atmosphere, with the noise tumbling down Gallowgate, Newcastle United began to believe in themselves again yesterday. This was a third straight victory under Kevin Keegan, one that means while mathematically Newcastle can still go down, the possibility is now as remote as Derby County.If Newcastle win next week and Bolton do not, then the Geordies are safe.
Keegan is already looking up rather than down, and if his rejuvenated players can sustain this flourish, the summer will be interesting. Expectation may remain low, and vulnerable to a couple of poor performances, but it could soon surge.
Keegan will take it in his stride, you imagine. Stimulation is all part of the Keegan package, and it has worked visibly on this group over the past three weeks. Yesterday it culminated in a goal each for his trident attack of Obafemi Martins, Michael Owen and Mark Viduka. For Owenit was a fourth consecutive scoring display.
"I would have thought we're safe, though mathematically we're not," Keegan said. "We have taken 10 points from four games and we're starting to play with the confidence and style this group of players should be playing with. It's confidence more than anything."
While admitting that Newcastle had gone ahead "against the run of play", Keegan pointedto his forward trio and called them "chalk and cheese – the third must be something else".
Viduka does sometimes defy categorisation but Keegan identified his positioning as pivotal: "With all the movement we've got, we need someone to stand still, and he's the one."
Occasionally static or not, the sharpness of Newcastle's attack was too much for Reading's soft defence. Viduka's 58th-minute strike was the 61st goal Steve Coppell's side have conceded this season. Yet Coppell's opinion that Reading were the better side for much of the first half was understandable. "For the first 20 minutes we looked the better team," Coppell said. "But you come in at half-time 2-0 down and I'm thinking, 'How did that happen?' But then in Martins, Owen and Viduka they have a hell of a threesome."
Coppell added that he took no consolation from the results of teams below them, but Reading are six points off relegation and have Fulham at home on Saturday. They faded here but look solid enough to stay up for a third top-flight season.
Had Kevin Doyle's first-minute header gone under rather than just over the crossbar, the afternoon might have been very different. But for all Stephen Hunt's prompting, Reading's ambition was undone by Liam Rosenior's 18th-minute slip. That meant Nicky Butt's pass went to Martins, who took his time before slotting a low shot beyond Marcus Hahnemann.
Newcastle relaxed and Owen almost scored on 37 minutes from a Joey Barton pass, but an even better one from Habib Beye set Owen free just before half-time to stab the decisive second past Hahnemann.
Fluid passing early in the second half led to Viduka and Beye producing a one-two that Vidukaended with a rasping close-range third. The noise was hearty.